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."