Revealed - A "Violation of Trust"?
Richard C. Cook
In a review of my book, Challenger Revealed:
An Insider's Account of How the Reagan Administration
Caused the Greatest Tragedy of the Space Age,
Gilbert Taylor, reporting for the American Library
Association's Booklist, wrote:
"In the days following the space shuttle Challenger
disaster of 1986, Cook, then a budget analyst at NASA,
leaked documents to the New York Times. The papers
acquired significance for predicting that faulty rubber
seals on the solid fuel rockets could trigger
a catastrophe, as the official investigation indeed concluded. In this
memoir and personal investigation, Cook justifies
his leak, or, from another perspective, his violation of trust,
and proposes a theory for why NASA managers launched
after overruling objections from the rocket engineers."
Mr. Taylor raises an issue that is a source of
anguish, not only for whistleblowers, but for anyone who works
in an organization. I believe, and have said
as much to audiences at book signings, that all of us at some point
will have to make a decision about how to deal
with perceived behavior on the part of others within our
organization that compromises standards, is unethical,
or is even illegal. It is simply the nature of life.
No organization can ever be completely free of
problems of this type.
The easiest thing to do, always the safest, and
often the most appropriate is to look the other way. I also tell
my audiences to try to work things out from within,
through discussion and open communications. To see why
I acted otherwise following the Challenger disaster,
I think it is necessary for a person to read my book.
Before the disaster I had spent months documenting
some of the large number of potentially lethal hardware
problems with the space shuttle. The people I
worked with at headquarters said openly that "sooner or later"
a disaster would ground the fleet.
The question was which piece of equipment would
be the first to fail. The leading candidates were the orbiter
main engines, the solid rocket booster O-ring
joints, the filament wound case solid rocket booster replacement,
the orbiter's heat-resistant tiles, and the Centaur
upper stage. Actually quite a long list. But no one could stop
the momentum of a program which President Reagan
himself had declared "operational."
NASA knew almost instantly that it was the O-ring
joints that destroyed Challenger on January 28, 1986,
and they instituted a cover-up to prevent that
knowledge from coming out. A few days later, a Presidential
Commission was convened to manage the news and
steer attention away from White House involvement
in the launch decision.
My book documents these circumstances. Initially
I approached the Presidential Commission and my superiors
at NASA but was rebuffed. The New York Times
story published on February 9 began what I called a "cascade
of disclosures," including how the Thiokol engineers
argued vociferously the night before the launch that the O-rings
were too cold to seal properly in the freezing
Before they testified before the Commission, those
engineers were told by their company attorneys to give only
"yes or no" answers. They defied orders and told
the truth. I wonder if Mr. Taylor would call this a "violation of trust"?
Was it a "violation of trust" when Dr. Richard
Feynman, the Nobel prize winner serving on the Commission,
surprised Chairman William Rogers at the February
11 hearing by dipping a piece of O-ring into a glass of
ice water and showing how the rubber would have
Was it a "violation of trust" when chief astronaut
John Young wrote a memo that appeared in the newspapers
about a host of other serious shuttle safety
issues that NASA was not taking seriously?
Maybe, just maybe, it was a "violation of trust"
when NASA sent seven astronauts to their deaths on equipment
that was known to be flawed in weather conditions
which the world's leading experts said could result in precisely
the catastrophe that took place.
Maybe it was a "violation of trust" when the NASA
solid rocket booster program manager asked,
"When do you want me to launch, Thiokol, next
Maybe it was a "violation of trust" when the top
Thiokol executive told the engineering manager, who earlier that
night had recommended against the launch in writing,
"Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat."
Maybe it was a "violation of trust" when a Thiokol
engineer was told not to worry, that the decision to launch
was political, and that if something went wrong
he would not be blamed.
Maybe it was a "violation of trust" when the investigating
bodies spent months and millions of taxpayers' dollars
writing reports that ignored many of the leading
underlying causes of the disaster, as well as the likely involvement
of the political figures who wanted the shuttle
up for public relations purposes.
Could it possibly have been a "violation of trust"
for NASA to fly a manned space vehicle where testing was
inadequate, multiple design compromises had been
made, equipment was installed to perform functions it was
never intended to do, the system was expected
to fly like a scheduled airline when it was clearly what one
veteran astronaut called "experimental gear,"
where two of the five orbiters in the fleet have crashed because
of hardware glitches known ahead of time to be
fatally flawed, and where even today the number one question
when the shuttle is launched is whether the crew
will return alive?
In the end I made the excruciating decision to
go to the press with what so many of us at NASA knew.
Even though I was able to find another job at
the Treasury Department, I was known to the end of my career
as the NASA whistleblower. I wondered for the
next two decades if I had made the right decision and often
doubted it. I still wonder today. If I had kept
my mouth shut I certainly would have made a lot more money
and climbed the career ladder much more successfully.
When I finally completed Challenger Revealed,
it was a cathartic experience which allowed me to face my
doubts and fears. In the end, I was able to forgive
myself and all the others who were involved in one of the
most complex, bizarre, and puzzling events ever
to take place, and I tried to convey this in what I wrote.
I have received many positive comments on my
book, as well as additional information from NASA insiders
about that strange day in history. Today I would
invite the public to read the book, walk in my footsteps,
and draw their own conclusions.
Richard C. Cook is the author of Challenger
Revealed: An Insider's Account of How the Reagan
Administration Caused the Greatest Tragedy
of the Space Age, called by Publisher's
"easily the most informative and important book
on the disaster." He worked in the Carter White House
and NASA before spending twenty-one years as
an analyst with the U.S. Treasury Department.
He is now a writer and consultant on public policy
Contact Richard C. Cook at his website www.richardccook.com
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