The deadly cost of ignoring warnings from subordinates: The 1986 Challenger disaster

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The night before the ill-fated launch of the Challenger spaceship in January 1986, project engineer Bob Ebeling and four colleagues pleaded with NASA and other higher ups to delay the mission. The reason? They believed that with the cold weather facing the launch, the Challenger was likely to blow up because its rubber seals wouldn’t hold up under lower temperatures.

Tragically, their concerns went unheeded, and seven brave astronauts died while their family members, friends, colleagues, and a national audience watched the horror unfold.

On this 30th anniversary of that terrible tragedy, Ebeling was interviewed by NPR’s Howard Berkes about what happened:

Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief.

The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them.

That night, he told his wife, Darlene, “It’s going to blow up.”

When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling and his colleagues sat stunned in a conference room at Thiokol’s headquarters outside Brigham City, Utah. They watched the spacecraft explode on a giant television screen and they knew exactly what had happened.

It breaks my heart that Ebeling blames himself for what happened, when he and his colleagues had the courage to speak up despite all the public anticipation of this launch.

This also serves as a terrible reminder of what can happen when high-level managers and executives disregard the urgent concerns of knowledgeable subordinates. In this case, lives were at stake. Had NASA officials listened to the five engineers, those astronauts would not have perished on that day.

3 responses

  1. Thank you for this article. The actions of Mr. Ebeling and his colleagues were nothing short of heroic. They couldn’t control the outcome, but they tried. They tried.

  2. Isn’t it amazing that time and time again those in power fail to listen to and respect the concerns and knowledgeable input of their “inferiors.” This trend can and will be stopped, particularly if we shine the light on administrative shortsightedness. But we can never lose hope and must always have the courage to try to do what’s right. When the public image of a nation and money are the accepted priority, leaders are even willing to sacrifice lives. Somebody must write a book about it, or tell everybody about that book that has already been written about it.

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