It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see NASA error


January 13, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

I do not consider myself an unforgiving person.

I realize that time can heal wounds (as well as wound heels) and that some old sins should be forgiven if not forgotten.

Which is why today I buy Dow Chemical's Saran Wrap, even though I took a vow in the '60s to boycott it because Dow also made napalm.

I don't think I have forgiven Union Carbide for killing all those people in Bhopal, India, in 1984, but since I can't figure out what Union Carbide makes (except deadly gas), I haven't actively been boycotting it.

I know I haven't forgiven Exxon yet for that oil spill in 1989.

And that leaves Morton Thiokol somewhere in the middle.

I definitely have not bought any space shuttles lately, but this has not hurt Thiokol. In fact, ever since Thiokol helped blow up those astronauts in 1986, it has done very well.

How well? Last week, NASA, which might have been expected to harbor a small grudge against Thiokol, gave Thiokol a high honor.

The George M. Low Trophy, which is NASA's annual "quality and excellence" award, was bestowed on Thiokol's Space Operations division, those guys and gals who make the propulsion system for the space shuttles. (In 1989, Morton Thiokol split into Thiokol Corp. and Morton International.)

In January 1986, the Challenger space shuttle developed a wee problem in its propulsion system. The right rocket booster sprang a leak and 73 seconds after takeoff the shuttle exploded killing all seven crew members.

Morton Thiokol made that faulty booster. And in June 1986, the Rogers Commission, chaired by William Rogers, issued a report about who should or should not get blamed. According to the New York Times account: "In a low-key but stern indictment, the [Rogers] commission's 256-page final report chronicled a long history of engineering and managerial mistakes, of refusing to recognize the seriousness of problems with the solid-fuel booster rockets, of a breakdown in quality control programs and of repeated failures to pass vital safety information along from lower levels to key decision makers.

"The report also said that Morton Thiokol Inc., had designed a faulty rocket joint, had taken no appropriate action to fix it and had opposed suggestions made by NASA engineers in the late 1970s that the joint be redesigned."

But then, the punch line: "The report did not explicitly blame any individuals for the disaster."

After a Rose Garden ceremony announcing the report, Rogers, former attorney general under Dwight Eisenhower and secretary of state under Richard Nixon, said: "We were not asked to assess blame, and we have not assessed blame." Rogers said that in a sense "a lot of us are to blame" for the accident, including the Reagan administration, Congress and the media, "all of whom made the optimistic assumption that the space shuttle had become operational instead of remaining a risky developmental program."

Got that? Anyone who was bamboozled into believing that the space shuttle was safe was just as guilty as the people who failed to make sure it was safe.

Me, I sort of blamed Thiokol. It seemed to me that when you "designed a faulty rocket joint" and then took "no appropriate action to fix it" and then "opposed suggestions made by NASA engineers" that the joint be redesigned, then you were guilty of something.

But no criminal charges were ever brought against Thiokol. Thiokol did pay some money to the survivors of the dead crew members. But it may not have been very much.

In December 1986, the federal government and Morton Thiokol agreed to pay an estimated $7.7 million to the families of four of the Challenger astronauts.

This is not a lot of dough. It averages out to only $1.9 million per family. That same year, a judge in New York awarded $7 million to a baby who was treated negligently at birth. In Florida, a couple got $7.2 million because their insurance was wrongfully canceled. In Maryland, a 17-year-old boy was awarded $4.1 million in a diving accident.

Two other families of Challenger crew members settled separate claims for undisclosed amounts. But the widow of Michael Smith, the Challenger co-pilot, sued Thiokol.

She settled in August, 1988, for an undisclosed amount and also "agreed to drop efforts to bar Thiokol from further shuttle work."

This meant that Thiokol could continue to make millions and millions from NASA. Which it did. In fact, in the months following the accident, Morton Thiokol was paid $34.1 million in "bonus incentives" for its "superior performance."

And last week Thiokol received NASA's award for "quality and excellence."

Why not? Forgive and forget. After all, it's been six whole years.

And Thiokol hasn't blown up anybody lately.

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