Who’s Your Hero?

How do you define the word, hero? It’s used all the time; so much so that it feels almost commonplace. And yet, by my definition, a hero is anything BUT quotidian. A hero is a person who does something above and beyond the call of duty. A hero is a person who stands up and demands that justice be served, even in the face of daunting odds. That would include the Chinese man who stood before a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square in 1989 [who by the way, has never been identified; in the press he is forever known as Tank man.]. It would include Jeffrey Olsen, a firefighter who desperately tries to save lives on 9/11, only to perish later that day. It would include Rosa Parks, who dared to sit down at the front of the bus, and not in the back. It would include Hiram Bingham IV, the U.S. diplomat credited with saving more than 2,000 Jews and other refugees in France from the invading Nazis [the U.S. Postal Service has just honored his memory with a US postage stamp].
Of course I could go on and on. My point: these are not your average people. They are extraordinary. That is why they are heroes. I want to clarify the importance of setting true heroes apart so that we might learn from them and be inspired to perform courageous acts. Not to be heroes – anyone who wants to be a hero is immediately disqualified from wearing the title. It’s all about stepping up, or to paraphrase a famous quote from Maimonides, “In a place where there is no man, be a man.”
I just added a hero to my list. Until this week I never knew his story. Roger Boisjoly (pronounced like the wine Beaujolais) was a booster rocket engineer at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol in Utah who worked on the Challenger Space Shuttle team. Up until this week, I had always thought that Morton Thiokol engineers knew that there were problems with the O rings but remained silent for fear that the flight of the Challenger would be delayed and that they would be criticized by NASA for not working efficiently. The results, of course, were disastrous. The Challenger exploded mid-air, killing the entire crew: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, teacher Christa McAuliffe,Gregory Jarvis, and Jewish astronaut Judith Resnik.
Boisjoly in fact noticed that the elastic seals – the O rings – at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets tended to stiffen and unseal in cold weather. He was concerned about launching a shuttle in January: even in Florida, where it can get actually get cold – well, coldish. So he sent an internal memo, bluntly writing, “The result could be a catastrophe of the highest order, loss of human life.”
Managers at NASA and colleagues at Morton Thiokol immediately sought to shut him up. They belittled him, saying he was Chicken Little. Some at NASA management pushed him to “prove” that the Shuttle would explode if it went off on January, as planned. Boisjoly, remembering that conversation, said that he had never, as an engineer, been asked to prove that something would NOT happen, only what MIGHT happen. He couldn’t prove that it would blow up, even though there was enough evidence to show sure signs of danger.
Undeterred, Boisjoly kept hounding Morton Thiokol management and NASA, demanding accountability. On the night of Jan. 27, 1986, with a forecast of record cold for Florida the morning of the launch, Mr. Boisjoly and four other Thiokol engineers used a teleconference with NASA to press the case for delaying the next day’s launching. At one point, Mr. Boisjoly said, he slapped down photos showing the damage cold temperatures had caused to an earlier shuttle. It had lifted off on a cold day, but not this cold.
“How the hell can you ignore this?” he demanded. At first this seemed persuasive, according to commission testimony. Makers of critical components had the power to postpone flights.
Four Thiokol vice presidents, all engineers themselves, went offline to huddle. They later said that they had worried they lacked conclusive data to stop a launching that had already been postponed twice. They thought the naysayers might be operating on gut reaction, not science.
Jerry Mason, Thiokol’s general manager, told his fellow executives to take off their engineering hats and put on management hats. They told NASA it was a go.
The next morning Mr. Boisjoly watched the launching. If there was going to be a problem, he thought it would come at liftoff. As the shuttle cleared the tower, his prayers seemed answered.
“Thirteen seconds later,” Mr. Boisjoly said, “we saw it blow up.”
Roger Boisjoly did all he could to delay the flight, but he could not cut through the hubris of NASA and Thiokol management. The explosion and the responses of NASA and Morton Thiokol truly traumatized him. He eventually left after suffering debilitating headaches, panic attacks, and the snubbing by certain folks at Thiokol who resented him for “selling them out.”
Boisjoly spent the rest of his life speaking at conferences all over the world about forensic engineering and about the responsibility of scientists to the people involved in the projects and not the managers who ran them. He once said to his wife that his mission in life was teaching young people the ethical decision-making they would be called upon to use.
Roger Boisjoly risked his reputation, his job security, and contested the status quo, to save lives. He stood up and demanded accountability from the people for whom he worked. People like Boisjoly set the bar higher for us all. Maybe that’s the ultimate mark of a hero: someone who reminds us of what it means to believe in others and then to stand up for them. A hero reminds us of who we have the power to become, namely a better human being.
Shabbat Shalom

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