How do you overcome guilt if you tried to stop disaster and it didn’t work?
Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, now a movie available on Hulu, recounts the story of a man time traveling to stop President Kennedy’s assassination. That’s fiction and fantasy.
But imagine you were in the position to stop a tragedy, that you tried to stop a tragedy and your attempt failed.
When the Challenger space shuttle blew up just over 30 years ago, Bob Ebeling watched from a conference room in Brigham City, Utah. The night before Ebeling had told his wife, “It’s going to blow up.”
Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol tried to stop the launch. They argued with their company’s superiors and the decision makers at NASA, explaining that the rubber seals (o-rings) on the shuttle’s booster rockets wouldn’t seal properly in cold temperatures.
The Challenger launch from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 28, 1986 was the coldest on record. 73 seconds after launch, the rocket booster exploded due to a failed o-ring and all seven astronauts perished.
Three weeks after Challenger blew up, Ebeling and fellow engineer Roger Boisjoly spoke with NPR anonymously and provided the details that led to the rocket booster explosion.
A subsequent investigation revealed that NASA had become impatient because of several launch delays and wanted the Challenger mission to proceed. Following an investigation, NASA’s procedures and decision making was thoroughly vetted and overhauled.
Last month, NPR spoke with the 89-year-old Ebeling again, this time on the record. Because of severe depression, he left Morton Thiokol soon after Challenger and has carried the burden for three decades.
“There was more than enough (NASA officials and Thiokol managers) there to say, ‘Hey, let’s give it another day or two,'” Ebeling told NPR. “But no one did.
“I could have done more. I should have done more.”
Ebeling is still haunted by guilt and his sincerity touched those who heard or read the story. Hundreds have sent him letters and emails of support and sympathy.
“When I heard he carried a burden of guilt for 30 years, it broke my heart,” Jim Sides, an engineer from Jacksonville, N.C., told NPR. “And I just sat there in the car in the parking lot and cried.”
You can listen to the excellent story by NPR here:
(By the way, if you missed it a month ago, this oral history of the Challenger disaster appeared in Popular Mechanics and provided new details and information regarding the background and aftermath.)
UPDATE: Bob passed away on Monday, March 21, 2016. According to the Washington Post, “It was as if he got permission from the world,” his daughter Leslie Ebeling Serna told NPR. “He was able to let that part of his life go.”