On Jan. 27, 1986, Allan McDonald stood on the cusp of history.
McDonald directed the booster rocket project at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol. He was responsible for the two massive rockets, filled with explosive fuel, that lifted space shuttles skyward. He was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the launch of the Challenger “to approve or disapprove a launch if something came up,” he told me in 2016, 30 years after Challenger exploded.
His job was to sign and submit an official form. Sign the form, he believed, and he’d risk the lives of the seven astronauts set to board the spacecraft the next morning. Refuse to sign, and he’d risk his job, his career and the good life he’d built for his wife and four children.
“And I made the smartest decision I ever made in my lifetime,” McDonald told me. “I refused to sign it. I just thought we were taking risks we shouldn’t be taking.”
McDonald persistently cited three reasons for a delay: freezing overnight temperatures that could compromise the booster rocket joints; ice forming on the launchpad and spacecraft that could damage the orbiter heat tiles at launch; and a forecast of rough seas at the booster rocket recovery site.
He also told NASA officials, “If anything happens to this launch, I wouldn’t want to be the person that has to stand in front of a board of inquiry to explain why we launched.”
Now, 35 years after the Challenger disaster, McDonald’s family reports that he died Saturday in Ogden, Utah, after suffering a fall and brain damage. He was 83 years old.
“There are two ways in which [McDonald’s] actions were heroic,” recalls Mark Maier, who directs a leadership program at Chapman University and produced a documentary about the Challenger launch decision.
“One was on the night before the launch, refusing to sign off on the launch authorization and continuing to argue against it,” Maier says. “And then afterwards in the aftermath, exposing the cover-up that NASA was engaged in.”
Twelve days after Challenger exploded, McDonald stood up in a closed hearing of a presidential commission investigating the tragedy. He was “in the cheap seats in the back” when he raised his hand and spoke. He had just heard a NASA official completely gloss over a fundamental fact.