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Boisjoly Finally Free Of Guilt Over Challenger Disaster

May 29, 1988 GMT

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ A former Morton Thiokol Inc. engineer who argued against launching the space shuttle Challenger says he has stopped blaming himself for the explosion that killed its seven astronauts and is ready to go back to work.

After two years of therapy and ″the positive catharsis″ of lectures on the disaster, Roger Boisjoly is seeking to reclaim the career that was shattered when the Challenger blew up.

″For a long time, I bore the burden of guilt because I hadn’t done more to stop it,″ he said last week. ″But I’ve resolved it now. I did everything I could.″

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Like several other engineers with rocket manufacturer Morton Thiokol, Boisjoly argued fiercely the night before the Jan. 28, 1986, launch that temperatures of 53 degrees Fahrenheit or lower could result in a failure of a rocket joint seal, endangering the shuttle and crew.

But after a second caucus with officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Boisjoly said, company managers ″perceived pressure from NASA. ... I felt the pressure, others felt the pressure.″

Boisjoly and others at Morton Thiokol’s Utah plant watched on television as the shuttle, rising above Cape Canaveral after a night of freezing temperatures, blew apart 73 seconds after liftoff.

After testifying before the presidential commission that investigated the disaster, he felt ostracized by Morton Thiokol. On July 21, 1986, Boisjoly took disability leave. He quit the following September.

He was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

With his disability benefits from Morton Thiokol due to run out by year’s end, Boisjoly plans to use his remaining time and income ″to get my life back together.″

Because he’s 50 and unemployed, Boisjoly said, getting a new job is ″not going to be a cakewalk.″

Boisjoly said he probably will return to engineering, although not in the aerospace business. A Tampa company tentatively offered a job after a lecture at the University of Southern Florida.

He declined to talk about the therapy he underwent. Instead, Boisjoly spoke about his recent series of lectures at colleges and professional societies, where he recounts Challenger-related events from Jan. 25, 1986, until now.

″I dwell on the final chart, the decision-making chart that came out of the caucus. There’s not a single statement on the chart that supports the launch,″ he said. ″That’s when my audience just looks horrified. They can’t believe anybody would launch.″

A mechanical engineer, Boisjoly had been in aerospace for 27 years, six at Morton Thiokol, before resigning.

″I saw the industry get broken over 20 years. We’ve gone from companies considering employees as an asset to considering them replaceable parts ... based on the bottom line of maximum short-term profits,″ he said. ″It’s the forced-march approach to management. It simply doesn’t work. It leads to decisions based on money and schedules.″

Boisjoly has little faith in the redesigned rocket booster to be used in the launch of the shuttle Discovery, scheduled for August.

″I think the pressures are worse now,″ he said. ″They give the appearance of returning to safe flight, but they’re still trying to return to schedule, and that’s coming from top management.″

Morton Thiokol officials declined comment on Boisjoly’s assertions.

Still pending is a pair of lawsuits Boisjoly filed against Morton Thiokol.

One seeks $1 billion for the seven astronauts’ deaths and $1 million in compensatory damages for his own health and career. The other, filed on behalf of U.S. taxpayers, seeks $2.075 billion and alleges that Morton Thiokol knowingly provided NASA with defective solid rocket motors.

The lawsuits, said his attorney, Robert Levin, are Boisjoly’s way of ″trying to make sense of and extract some good from a terrible tragedy. It’s very important to him that the right lessons be learned from what happened with Challenger.″

Said Boisjoly: ″I’m asked in my talks if I’d do it again. I’d do it again in a minute. What’s right is right, and this was a clear-cut case of what’s wrong.″