Thirty Years Ago, Bob Ebeling Tried To Stop Challenger Launch — Weeks Before Death, He Finally Found Peace

The morning of the Challenger launch, engineer Bob Ebeling shared a grim prediction with his daughter, Leslie.

“He said, ‘The Challenger’s going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die,’ ” Leslie told NPR. Bob died Monday at age 89 after a long illness. “And he was beating his fist on the dashboard. He was frantic.”

On that fateful day, January 28, 1986, Ebeling, his daughter, and his fellow engineer, Roger Boisjoly, watched the launch from his office at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol’s Utah complex. According to the Washington Post, when the clock reached T-minus-5-seconds, Bob and his colleague held hands.

The shuttle took off without incident.

“I turned to Bob and said, ‘We’ve dodged a bullet,’ ” Roger recalled.

Bob was thanking God for proving his warnings wrong. And then: “Kaboom. It went,” Ebeling said later. “I — I walked right out of there and went in my office and cried.”

Leslie recalled her father “trembling. And then he wept — loudly. And then Roger started crying.”

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In the 30 years since the Challenger explosion, which took seven lives (Cmdr. Francis Scobee; pilot Michael Smith; mission specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and “teacher in space” Christa McAuliffe), Bob Ebeling harbored an unavoidable guilt.

That’s because in the days leading up to the launch, Bob and five other booster rocket engineers with Thiokol tried to delay it. Booster rockets from the Discovery launch the year before revealed seal problems. Ebeling looked into it and found that the rubber O-ring seals stiffened in the cold. This would make rocket fuel leak from the booster joints. Cold temperatures the night before the launch, of 18 degrees, heightened their worry. Boisjoly was certain of the threat.

“We all knew if the seals failed, the shuttle would blow up.”

Ebeling sounded the alarm first, the morning before the launch. He called his boss at Thiokol, Allan McDonald, and a teleconference with NASA officials, executives, and the engineers began. Bob was not part of it. Ebeling did assemble the data, however. Roger pushed for a delay and Thiokol backed him at first.

But George Hardy at the Marshall Space Flight Center, was allegedly “appalled” by the idea of a delay. His colleague, Lawrence Mulloy, “When do you want me to launch? Next April?” The shuttle had already been delayed.

NASA was determined to move forward and the night before, they declared that the Challenger would lift off as planned. After Bob Ebeling watched his warnings come horrifically true, he blamed himself for not doing enough to convince Thiokol and NASA to wait.

In the wake of the disaster, Ebeling was one of the anonymous engineers who testified in a presidential commission that investigated the explosion. Tensions at Thiokol that followed led Bob to retire and devote his time to volunteering at a local bird refuge. But the guilt followed him for the rest of his life.

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“I think that was one of the mistakes God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for that job.”

Ebeling spoke those words in January, when he was interviewed by NPR for the disaster’s 30th anniversary. His interview touched many listeners and scores of them reached out to assure Bob that he was blameless.

One of those listeners was a utility engineer from North Carolina, Jim Sides, who said Bob Ebeling’s story “broke my heart, and I just — I sat there in the car in the parking lot and cried,” Sides told NPR.

Though listeners’ words touched Bob, they weren’t enough. To finally find peace, Ebeling needed to hear it from the higher-ups who, 30 years before, went ahead with the launch despite his warnings. NPR got in touch with those men, and they declared that Bob wasn’t responsible.

After speaking to Hardy, the reporter told Ebeling that he and his “colleagues did everything that was expected of you. The decision was a collective decision made by several NASA and Thiokol individuals. You should not torture yourself with any assumed blame.”

Weeks before his death, his daughter Leslie said, her father was finally able to let the Challenger disaster go. Last month, daughter Kathy called the end of her father’s guilt a miracle.

“It’s starting to change his mind that he doesn’t feel so guilty, so that’s a miracle. Thirty years of guilt is long enough. He doesn’t have to die with this nagging guilt. He can die free.”

[Photo by Bruce Weaver/AP]