Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. By Allan J. McDonald with James R. Hansen. Gainesville: University
Press of Florida, 2009. Notes. Index. Pp. xix, 626. $39.95 ISBN 10:0-8130-3326-8
This multi-layered book illuminates how government, industry, and academe create, manage, and operate technocratic projects. It is not a military history piece, although Air Power History readers will find vignettes of Air Force General Don Kutyna's role in the Challenger postmortem fascinating. Nor is it a narrative on the grandeur of human spaceflight praiseful of the NASA, contractor Morton Thiokol, or technocracy. It is the memoir of a leading member of the NASA-Thiokol team that ultimately launched Challenger that fateful day and who was instrumental in pinpointing the disaster's causes and then safely designing, building, and flying much-improved solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that helped return the system to flight.
It is a critical memoir but fair. Author, engineer, and executive Allan McDonald was Thiokol's director of the Solid Rocket Motor project. He opposed the launch, along with other engineers, and paid a high personal and professional price. While the book is his product, he was assisted by respected aerospace historian James R. Hansen, who wrote 2005's acclaimed First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong.
Readers may digest the product on many levels. It is not a generalized chronological tale of what happened during the Challenger explosion and deaths of seven astronauts. Those seeking such an understanding should first skim Hansen's bibliographic essay for a more popular audience introduction. Rather, the authors demonstrate the detailed functioning of government, industry, and academe in an aerospace case study in which McDonald was a first-person participant. As such, he analyzes primary sources retained for over two decades detailing engineering, leadership, and management personalities and decisions involved in the Shuttle program. He is not so much telling the tale of Challenger as much as illuminating relationships in an important segment of the aerospace community, demonstrating that success in such work demands heterogeneity in engineering, management, operations, and sundry bureaucratic skills.
Details matter in rocketry. As a history-of-technology piece, McDonald significantly provides a plethora of explanation covering the design, function, and limitations of the joint-sealing O-rings. He repeats his...