In early September, Netflix released a new documentary series, “Challenger: The Final Flight,” which chronicles the buildup and aftermath of the devastating Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986. The series has already received a great deal of praise from critics and space program experts alike. Emily Carney, founder of the Facebook group Space Hipsters and creator of the “Space and Things” podcast, wrote, “The subject was handled beautifully and tastefully, and the archival footage is incredible.” As we have written about previously on the blog, the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections & Archives at the Leatherby Libraries is proud to own several collections of videos, images, transcripts, paperwork, and other archival material related to the disaster. In the making of this new documentary series, the filmmakers consulted with Special Collections, as well as Chapman University professor and coordinator and founding chair of the Leadership Studies program Dr. Mark Maier, who was responsible for the creation and curation of these collections in the archive. The Leatherby Libraries blog spoke with three key players in the process beginning with the creation of the collections up to the collaboration with the filmmakers – Dr. Mark Maier, librarian Dr. Doug Dechow, and Coordinator of Special Collections & Archives Annie Tang – about their roles in the archives and with the filmmakers.
Dr. Mark Maier wrote:
How did you come to create these archives?
The archives – both of them – resulted from my deep personal connections to Roger Boisjoly and Allan McDonald, both of whom had collaborated on the creation of a leadership ethics training module I created while still at the State University of New York in 1992 (A Major Malfunction: The Story Behind the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plASsaCbe5M&feature=youtu.be .) That module was subsequently and eventually adopted by nearly 1,000 colleges, universities, corporations, military branches etc. in 23 countries around the world, and even translated into Spanish and Italian.
I first met Roger Boisjoly (pronounced, “Beaujolais,” like the French wine) in 1988, barely 2 years after Challenger, when he spoke on my campus at SUNY-Binghamton. Ironically, I had just been charged with revising a “Business Emphasis” I had been coordinating within a Social Science Degree program, resulting in a new emphasis in “Leadership and Organizational Studies.” At the time, it was one of the very first academic programs in the country (or world, for that matter!) devoted to the study and practice of leadership.
Hearing the story about what actually happened “behind the scenes,” and viewing it through the lens of a trained sociologist, I instantly recognized that the Challenger disaster was not an “accident” at all but a (literally) man-made event, the logical and predictable outcome of organizational and managerial systems operating according to long-established structures, norms and expectations. I recognized that if we don’t change the script, the outcomes won’t change. I was inspired then and there to begin working on a “pedagogical documentary” that exposed the organizational and managerial failings behind Challenger and the flaws of the traditional managerial and organizational/hierarchical “script.” Subsequent failings: Shuttle Columbia and the death of 7 more astronauts in 2003. The British Petroleum Oil spill. The General Motors ignition switch scandal. Enron. The Volkswagen (and now Mercedes) emissions cheating. Boeing and the MCAS system on the Dreamliner. Our own failed leadership at appropriately addressing COVID-19. etc.
Roger was a lower level participant (but senior expert on the O-ring seals that failed on Challenger) who risked – and lost – the most in exposing the truth behind his company’s willingness to reverse a sound technical recommendation (not to launch) and instead “please a major customer” (their $1 billiion contract with NASA) by telling NASA managers at Marshall what they knew they wanted to hear: Go ahead and fly. What I had first (wrongly) assumed was a simple communication issue, was, in fact, an ethical issue with profound leadership implications. Company lawyers instructed him, Arnie Thompson, and Brian Russell (who is a featured subject in the Netflix documentary) to only answer questions before the commission with a “yes” or “no,” i.e., do not volunteer any information! Instead, Boisjoly handed over all of his company documentation to General Kutyna (copies of all that documentation, by the way, are also part of our archives!).
Years later, Roger was a regular co-presenter with me on ethical leadership seminars (some hosted here on campus, e.g., for the Orange County Leadership Academy – the below photo of me and Roger was taken in Argyros Forum 209), right up through 2011, when he became too ill (cancer) to participate any longer. When he and Roberta were moving residences in Utah, he commented how he had “all these boxes in the garage” that Roberta had asked him to either “get rid of, or do something about.” So, beginning in 2009-10, each time he and his wife, Roberta, would drive to Chapman to present his ethical leadership session with me, he would bring along a few more boxes. That’s how the Roberta and Roger Boisjoly NASA Challenger Disaster Archives were born.
Allan McDonald, similarly, had boxes and boxes of stuff piled up at his home that Linda (his wife) wanted him to do something about. Al had taken Roger’s place in co-presenting on the ethical failures of leadership with me, most notably for the U.S. Space Command’s Space & Missile Systems Center here in El Segundo, and for the I.R.S. “Executive Readiness Program” in Washington, D.C. Knowing about Roger and Roberta’s donation, he thought it appropriate to do the same, and we used the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the tragedy (January 2016) to announce the creation of the Linda and Allan J. McDonald NASA Challenger Disaster Archive. (We’ve always insisted on the spouses’ names being part of the archival name, since we wanted to acknowledge that without the presence and support of these two strong women, neither Al nor Roger would have been able to face the trials and tribulations they were put through.)
Chapman, being in Orange County, is close to the historic epicenter of the U.S. Space Program (Downey, Long Beach, El Segundo, Huntington Beach, etc.) and therefore a super logical place for both of these archives, and hopefully more!
What was your role in collaborating with the filmmakers? Did they reach out to you, or you to them?
Daniel Junge, the Academy Award-winning documentary producer, reached out early in their process. I’m not sure how he heard about our archives, but we are close to Hollywood, so we’d be easy to find. I sent them a copy of my DVD (see Youtube link above), and they were ecstatic. He would later tell me that it made a major impact on how they framed their narrative. They also reached out to me numerous times along the way with requests for documents, memos, images, etc., and I would pretty much drop whatever I was doing (besides my classroom teaching, of course!) to address their needs and/or have a conversation with them about where they were going, what their intentions and needs were, and what they might not be asking for that was, from my point of view, relevant.
As Daniel Junge told me, “Whenever we got stuck, we came to you as the foremost scholar on Challenger. We’re grateful for everything you’ve done to document the tragedy and help us out. Your contributions to the program’s success — since its release this week, it has been ranked in the top 10 not only nationally, but globally, reaching tens of millions of people — are awesome.” Steven Leckart added, ” Whenever we needed clarity, you provided it for us. You were able to provide us with critical information and insight from a scholar’s objective perspective. No one knows Challenger as well as you do.”
Leatherby Libraries librarian Dr. Doug Dechow has been an ardent supporter of the Challenger collections and has curated a number of traveling exhibits about the space program, Challenger, and Roger Boisjoly’s work. He writes:
I first met engineer Roger Boisjoly at the ceremony for the dedication of the Challenger Disaster Collection that bears his and his wife’s name. I’d long been fascinated by the space program, and in fact, my first memory on this earth is of the Apollo moon landing. At the reception following the dedication, Prof. Mark Maier introduced me to Roger, and I had the opportunity to speak with him about January 28, 1986. At the time of the disaster, I was a sophomore studying aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and it was my goal in life to become an astronaut. It was an extraordinary personal moment to be able to share my memories of that day with someone who had such an intimate role in one of the tragic events of the American space program.
Over the next few years, I made the most of every opportunity that I had to interact with Roger, and that included asking him (and two other Challenger insiders) to contribute articles to “Lofty Ambitions.” “Lofty Ambitions” was the weblog that Dr. Anna Leahy and I were using to document our own experiences of growing up in the space age, and many of the blog entries, including Roger’s, served as source material for our book, Generation Space: A Love Story.
Because of Roger’s remarkable gift to Leatherby Libraries of his personal papers and engineering documentation, I was able to curate a collection of primary materials that spoke directly to Roger’s role in uncovering the truth around the Challenger Disaster. Over a period of years, I used those materials as a sort of traveling collection that served as the foundation for talks about NASA, the shuttle program, and Challenger that I presented to a wide-range of organizations: local engineering professionals, students of all ages, professionals at a leadership training institute, and retiree organizations.
The presentation that had the greatest impact on me personally was at a talk that I gave jointly with Special Collections librarian Rand Boyd at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, California. The Columbia Memorial Space Center is of course named for the second space shuttle that NASA lost. It also happens to be located on the other side of the street from what was once the North American Aviation/Rockwell International factory where all six of the space shuttles–Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour–were built. I could have thrown a baseball from the podium of where I spoke to the parking lot of the home of the space shuttles. It was a sobering location to be speaking to a group of current aerospace engineers about a specific failure of a previous generation of aerospace engineers and administrators in a building named for yet another disaster.
Like Dr. Maier, Annie Tang, Coordinator of Special Collections & Archives, also worked quite closely with the filmmakers. She writes:
As an archivist and head of the Special Collections and Archives department, I helped facilitate access to, and use of, our Challenger archival collections. This includes preparing materials in the Reading Room for the documentary’s research team, where they physically reviewed and took notes on the historical collections, and where I clarified any questions they had about the holdings. For any images and videos they wanted to include in the mini-series, I played the intermediary between the production company and our Legal Affairs Department in approving the use of the content in the final documentary, making sure all the i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed. This whole process–from the research appointments to the legal discussions–occurred over the course of more than a year!
The Leatherby Libraries is delighted to have been part of such an important documentary. We’re always happy to see our archives being used to share more information!
Photos courtesy of Mark Maier. The cover image was taken at the reception celebrating the creation of the McDonald Archive, with attendees forming the shape of an O-ring with Allan McDonald in the center.