Auburn professor helps pen first-of-its-kind book on Space Shuttle Challenger

AUBURN – Twenty-three years after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Auburn University Professor and author James Hansen has helped produce a compelling book recounting exactly why the U.S. space program’s first fatal in-flight accident occurred.

Hansen, professor of history and director of Auburn’s Honors College, teamed up to write the new 626-page book “Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster” with Allan McDonald. McDonald was an engineer who warned NASA officials that Challenger’s solid rocket motor could explode at ignition if launched that very cold morning on Jan. 28, 1986.

In the book, which was just released by the University Press of Florida, Hansen assists McDonald in telling how his words of warning were ignored and the fateful consequences of that decision.

“The fiery destruction of Challenger, with seven American astronauts on board, including the first ordinary citizen, a beloved schoolteacher, happened more than two decades ago,” writes Hansen in the foreword to the book. “One might think that historians have duly recorded—and that the technical aerospace community has fully comprehended for some time—exactly why the U.S. space program’s first fatal in-flight accident occurred on the cold, heartless morning of January 28, 1986. Surely, the facts underlying the horrible tragedy must have all surfaced by now, all the evidence fully examined and reexamined, all the expert testimony scrutinized, all the critical failure points analyzed and digested, all the penetrating engineering studies performed, all the revelatory books and articles written, all the important lessons learned.”

“It is not the case,” Hansen writes.

In the first published memoir by anyone directly associated with the decision to launch Challenger, McDonald, with Hansen’s help, writes about officials ignoring – and then covering up – the warnings he offered, and the price he paid to expose the truth. McDonald was director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project for Morton Thiokol Inc. in Utah at the time. He was sent to Kennedy Space Center as the company’s senior management representative for the Challenger launch.

According to Hansen, in the years after the explosion, McDonald tried to avoid publicity—first, because he was testifying in investigations, then because he was concentrating on redesigning the solid rocket motor for a safe return to space. But during that time, Hansen said McDonald had put together six big boxes of notes, including 1,400 handwritten pages about what happened. He retired in 2001 and decided it was finally time to tell his story.

Hansen said that the main reason McDonald wanted his story published was that he didn’t want the lessons learned to be forgotten and he wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be another such disaster.

“If you don’t put all that information on the table, you’re liable to make the same mistake,” McDonald said. “And like the Presidential Commission acknowledged, this is a failure in human management, which is equally as important as the piece of equipment that failed. If either one of those would have been operating properly, the accident wouldn’t have happened.”

Hansen said “Truth, Lies and O-Rings” isn’t just about what went wrong with the Challenger disaster but it is also about what went right as it also recounts what McDonald and others did to redesign the solid rocket motor and get the Space Shuttle flying again.

“The first time a shuttle returned to space after the accident, in 1988, Al was there,” Hansen said. “During the countdown, he was holding his breath, along with everyone else. I was doing the same at home, watching TV. I had no idea then that I would team up with Al to tell his powerful story.”

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