Roger Boisjoly, Engineer Who Warned of Challenger Shuttle Disaster, Dies at 73

Remembering Challenger: Shuttle Disaster and Others Refocus NASA
The space shuttle Challenger STS-51L spaceflight ended in tragedy on Jan. 28, 1986 73 seconds after liftoff. (Image credit: NASA.)

Roger Boisjoly, an aerospace engineer who warned that tragedy could result if NASA's space shuttle Challenger launched in cold weather, has died at the age of 73.

Boisjoly's warnings went unheeded, and Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts onboard. An investigation later attributed the disaster to a failed seal on one of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters. Cold weather prevented a rubber O-ring from maintaining its seal, allowing hot gas to leak and damage the shuttle's external fuel tank.

About six months before the disaster, Boisjoly — an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the firm that built the boosters — wrote a memo warning that freezing temperatures could lead to this nightmare scenario.

"The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order — loss of human life," Boisjoly wrote, according to the Associated Press.

Boisjoly and several colleagues reiterated their concerns the night before Challenger's launch, which was scheduled for an uncharacteristically frigid day at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. However, Morton Thiokol higher-ups overruled the whistleblowers and gave NASA the go-ahead, the AP reported.

Boisjoly testified before the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger tragedy. Later, he said his whistleblower status profoundly affected his personal and professional life, with both neighbors and workmates giving him the cold shoulder.

"When I realized what was happening, it absolutely destroyed me," Boisjoly told the AP in 1988. "It destroyed my career, my life, everything else. I'm just now getting back to the point where I think I'll be able to work as an engineer again."

Boisjoly died of cancer Jan. 6 in Nephi, Utah, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Provo. He was born in Lowell, Mass., on April 25, 1938. He is survived by his wife of 49 years, Roberta, along with two daughters and eight grandchildren, according to the AP.

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