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Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle <i>Challenger</i> Disaster
What they didn’t want you to know
"We all watched in shock and disbelief when Challenger was lost. Probably no one felt more disappointment and regret than Allan McDonald, who had warned us not to launch that day. His story tells of loss, grief, and the eventual rebuilding and recovery."--Robert "Hoot" Gibson, former Space Shuttle pilot and commander
"A major contribution to a difficult episode in the history of human spaceflight."--Roger D. Launius, Division of Space History, Smithsonian Institution
“McDonald tells the heartbreaking tale of how he saw his words of warning ignored, and the fateful consequences of that decision.”--Donald C. Elder III, Eastern New Mexico University
On a cold January morning in 1986, NASA launched the Space Shuttle Challenger, despite warnings against doing so by many individuals, including Allan McDonald. The fiery destruction of Challenger on live television moments after launch remains an indelible image in the nation’s collective memory.
In Truth, Lies, and O-Rings, McDonald, a skilled engineer and executive, relives the tragedy from where he stood at Launch Control Center. As he fought to draw attention to the real reasons behind the disaster, he was the only one targeted for retribution by both NASA and his employer, Morton Thiokol, Inc., makers of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. In this whistle-blowing yet rigorous and fair-minded book, McDonald, with the assistance of internationally distinguished aerospace historian James R. Hansen, addresses all of the factors that led to the accident, some of which were never included in NASA’s Failure Team report submitted to the Presidential Commission.
Truth, Lies, and O-Rings is the first look at the Challenger tragedy and its aftermath from someone who was on the inside, recognized the potential disaster, and tried to prevent it. It also addresses the early warnings of very severe debris issues from the first two post-Challenger flights, which ultimately resulted in the loss of Columbia some fifteen years later.
||Allan J McDonald|
||University Press of Florida|
||April 26, 2009|
|Average Customer Rating:
|| based on 30 reviews|
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38 of 38 found the following review helpful:
IMHO, Best book written about Challenger to date!Sep 20, 2009
By Jay M. Chladek
I first heard about this book a few months ago at [...]. Indeed, the title seemed somewhat tabloid I would say as it was about as blunt as an anvil falling on Willie Coyote's head in a Road Runner cartoon. I had some reservations picking it up until I learned that one of the authors was James Hansen, a former NASA historian who is currently a history professor at Auburn University (and of course, writer of "First Man" about Neil Armstrong). McDonald was a bit of a wildcard as although I recalled his name from the Challenger investigation, this was his first book and I wasn't exactly sure how it would be written. But, I knew if Hansen was involved after reading First Man and its even handed portrayal of Neil, then the book had to be in good hands. James takes his responsibilities very seriously and he doesn't stick his name with a project unless he knows it can provide a proper insight into the historical perspective of people and events.
Allan McDonald was both and engineer and manager working for Morton Thiokol on the space shuttle solid rocket booster program. He wasn't one of the individuals involved with the original design of the motor, but he was heavily involved during the ramp up of production after the shuttle's first test flights. Ironically it was his participation in the accident investigation of an explosion at one of the SRB propellant casting facilities that brought him into the shuttle SRB program. He became a program manager for the Filament Wound Casing SRBs being tested and built for shuttle launches from Vandenberg AFB (that program was cancelled after Challenger). He also became the chairman of the Senior Materials Review Board for the Solid Rocket Motors. This board was tasked with tracking all the discrepancies found in the SRB hardware both before, during and after use and Allan had to sign off on the recommendations to accept or reject hardware for use.
Fast forward to January 27, 1986 with the very unusual meeting/teleconference between NASA SRB program managers and Morton Thiokol concerning the topic of launching in cold temperatures and how the cold might affect performance of the O-rings in the Solid Rocket Booster field joints. McDonald was there and gave his input (and rather vocally expressed both his concerns and doubts). He was a ground floor witness to what happened on both that night and the next day.
Allan's book tells the story from before Challenger to after flights resumed with the redesigned SRB field joints. It documents very well the events that lead up to the destruction of the shuttle and both the investigations that took place as well as the Rogers Commission hearings (both in front of and behind the scenes). It was Allan's testimony that focused attention on the field joints as well as the January 27 teleconference.
In this book you get it all from his perspective. Indeed he took very thorough notes at the time of Challenger as he wanted to make sure he got his story straight. It was revealed in the brief mini-biography of McDonald at the end (written by James Hansen) that he studied pre-law at Eastern Montana College before pursuing engineering instead. His brother John went on to become a law professor. As such, I have a feeling that those classes prepared him somewhat for how he handled himself during those long months of investigation and testimony.
He certainly pulls no punches as he has things to say about both the NASA managers at the Marshall Spaceflight Center and his own bosses at Morton Thiokol (and a couple members of Congress who tried to grandstand a bit for their own political gain). The entire Challenger affair got Allan labeled a "whistleblower" and it affected his career somewhat. But, he did stick around and was very instrumental in the re-design of the solid rocket motor field joints. Those redesigned joints continue to be used today in the shuttle program and elements are intended for use in the Solid rocket motors designed for the Ares program.
Some might wonder if Allan really is the truth telling champion he comes off as in the book. But many of his co-workers and colleagues from that time say he is indeed that way. Looking at the advance praise quotations on the back of the book should give you a glimpse into that as two come from the a pair of the most highly regarded astronauts in the space program (Hoot Gibson and John Young). John Young very rarely associates his name with ANYTHING unless it is a quality product. It also gets back to why James Hansen got involved as well.
What I took away from this title was a few things. First, people talk about trying to fool Mother Nature, but the laws of physics can be even more cruel if you try to play Russian Roulette with them. "CYA" can't overcome what engineering data is saying and if lives are on the line, what the data is saying becomes far more critical then a person, company or agency's reputation. I also took from this title that there are indeed still honest people out there, ones willing to put their reputations on the line to speak out if they don't think something is right. Honesty and integrity are two values we don't hear about much these days as it seems some very shallow people tend to command the news headlines. Allan also has a very healthy sense of humor too. Read "The Green Ball Theory" and you'll get the idea. If this theory can make a Nobel Prize winning physicist laugh, it must be good.
I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the space and shuttle programs, or complex engineering projects. Studying the failures and accidents in the space program are just as important as studying the successes, otherwise we could be doomed to repeat them or have similar failures. I feel this book should also be required reading for engineering students. Granted not all engineers will end up working on something as critical as hardware for the space program. But there are lessons to be learned here as well.
For those that don't have a formal education in engineering, the book can drag a little at the beginning. But I urge you to keep reading as what is written in those early chapters has direct bearing on what comes later. In my own case, although I have researched the shuttle program extensively, this book explained to me clearly how the solid rocket motor field joints operated. In fact when I picked up the book, I couldn't put it down as I spent most of a weekend reading it from cover to cover. This is why I give the title five stars.
15 of 15 found the following review helpful:
Detailed and Impressive Insider LookApr 12, 2009
By Laurenc SVITOK
I was waiting for this book not only because I read only one Challenger disaster related document before - it was the Presidential Commission Report - but the author is Allan McDonald (together with Neil Armstrong's biographer James Hansen), the very Allan McDonald who not only helped to reveal the circumstances leading to the 51-L launch that cold January 1986 morning, but also participated in the redesign of the SRBs after the tragedy and contributed heavily to the successful Return to Flight two years later.
Allan McDonald - several decades Morton Thiokol employee in varios positions, mainly SRB related - became notoriously known during the hearings of the Rogers' commission when he was brave enough to stand up and point out that the original Thiokol decision was "not to launch", which decision was later changed based on NASA pressure on Thiokol management, which decided to ignore the own engineers warnings and changed their mind to "go for launch". Both NASA and Thiokol management were not ready to confess this information to the commission trying to protect themselves.
The commission members were completely shocked to hear this information which at the end helped to identify all the technical and management problems leading to the failed launch. McDonald became very unpopular with his own management and certain people from NASA, however, he stayed with the company and lead the redesign process of the faulty SRB joints culminating in the successful Return to Flight STS-26 mission.
There is a lot of technical stuff which requires some knowledge of the SRB design and terminology, but in the book like this it is inevitable and the reader will soon become familiar with both.
The book is very well written - result of taking the second author skilled in "readable" writing - and it is a very detailed account of the Challenger disaster and reasons behind the ill-fated launch given by the person not only directly involved in the activities leading to the launch itself, but being one of the key persons in the investigation process and leading the Return to Flight activities at Thiokol.
The honesty and personal courage of Allan McDonald to do what he did shall be an example and inspiration for others. I can only agree with Dr.Sally Ride, who came to Allan McDonald after his shocking testimony and told him : "God, that took a lot of guts".
9 of 9 found the following review helpful:
A Fascinating, Important and Valuable BookJun 30, 2009
By Terry Sunday
The explosion of NASA's Space Shuttle "Challenger" on January 28, 1986, with the loss of seven astronauts, is like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. No one who saw the tragic event on live television will ever forget where he or she was at the time. A government-industry team soon determined that unusually cold temperatures at the Cape the night before liftoff prevented O-rings in the aft field joint of the Morton Thiokol Inc. (MTI) right-hand Solid Rocket Motor (SRM) from properly sealing. Hot gases blew past the faulty seals, eroded a hole in the motor case and doomed the Shuttle and its unsuspecting crew.
In the 20-plus years since the disaster, many books on the subject have appeared, written by reporters, scholars and even a former NASA employee, with varying levels of detail and technical accuracy. "Truth, Lies and O-Rings" is different. Author Allan J. McDonald, who at the time was MTI's Director of the Shuttle SRM Project, was at the Cape when the Shuttle lifted off, and he watched in horror as it disintegrated 50,000 feet over the Atlantic in the clear Florida sky 73 seconds later. Mr. McDonald knew for certain that the O-rings in the field joint would seal more slowly--or perhaps would not seal at all--when they were cold. He was one of only two people who had spoken out against launching, to his own managers and to NASA managers, during a meeting the night before. His book relates, in great detail and with many new, revealing insights, his personal story of how the "Challenger" disaster happened and how it changed his life. In particular, it sheds light on one of the biggest issues surrounding the flawed decision to launch on that cold winter day--why did MTI first recommend against launching, then change to a "GO" recommendation?
Using transcripts from testimonies at the Presidential Commission that investigated the disaster, and drawing on thousands of pages of his own handwritten notes from the investigation, Mr. McDonald spares no detail in telling how and why "Challenger" failed. Quoting from the Commission hearing records, he shows how NASA and MTI managers first tried to cover up their irresponsible actions, then tried to discredit him. These verbatim testimonies add a sense of immediacy to what might otherwise be a dry technical narrative. Exceptionally well-written, "Truth, Lies and O-Rings" draws the reader along inexorably as the story progresses.
If you're interested in learning the excruciating details of what really happened to "Challenger," and why, and how the problems were corrected, then read this book. It is certainly the definitive treatment available today, and will likely remain so for a long time. By the way, an exceptionally valuable bonus is a 25-page Bibliographic Essay in which co-author James Hansen reviews and critiques virtually all of the other books available on the subject. Own them all if you can, but if you only own one, make it "Truth, Lies and O-Rings."
5 of 5 found the following review helpful:
Backbone, Integrity, DedicationJul 07, 2009
By Joe Bruce
I would love to see a book published by some of the other personalities involved in the Challenger accident.
Feelings of personal integrity of Allan McDonald come through after reading Allan McDonald and James Hansen's book Truth, Lies and O-Rings.
The book,at times, is a very technical book on the Shuttle Solid Rocket Motors. To totally understand what went wrong with the Challenger SRBs, this level of technical information is necessary.
At times certain incidents are retold throughout the book which may or may not be necessary for the overall story.
In general, a good book to read and a reminder to leave our egos at the door in our work and in dealing with others. This book reminds us that we always need to remember the importance of why we are in the world and to stand firm for what is true and right.
4 of 4 found the following review helpful:
Should Be Required Reading For Engineering Students - Highly RecommendedNov 28, 2010
By C. F. Hill
"Truth, Lies, and O-Rings" is a fascinating look into the tragic space shuttle Challenger explosion, as seen from the perspective of Allan McDonald, the lead manager for Morton Thiokol (manufacturers of the Solid Rocket Boosters) stationed at NASA in 1986. I should mention that this excellent book was brought to my attention by my Great Uncle (also mentioned briefly in the book) who also worked for Morton Thiokol at the same time as Mr. McDonald.
While there have been other attempts to document and even dramatize the events that lead up to the disastrous decision to launch the shuttle at a temperature far below the engineering recommended minimum safe value, this one is the first that gave me the feeling that we were seeing the whole story from someone who was deeply involved before, during, and after.
This is told purely from Mr. McDonald's point of view and it is an impressively detailed, yet easy to follow, accounting of what turns out to be case studies on flawed management decision making, responsible corporate employee behavior, and even a bit on ugly political opportunism. The technical aspects are there but the main focus is on the fallout to the space program, Moron Thiokol, the Solid Rocket Booster program, and the senate hearings, all of which Mr. DcDonald played a key roll in and documented in extraordinary detail (we learn that besides being a manager and engineer, he also had some Legal training).
An interesting note, this exact failure in the management chain and NASA's vendor bullying were given as examples in a management training class I took in in the mid-1990s. The lessons that really needed to be learned are that all of the management pressure in the world can not change the laws of physics and that it needs to always be unacceptable to take risks with people's lives to stay on a schedule\budget.
This is a great book for those entering engineering and management fields, as well as for the space enthusiast. My copy of has already been borrowed by an engineer friend and I am sending another to my nephew, an engineering student who wants to work at NASA.
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