What Do you want on Your Tombstone?

If you get to be remembered for one moment in life, shouldn’t it be something good? Rosa

Robert Ebeling

Robert Ebeling

Parks refusing to get up on on the bus comes to mind. A single event that captured the imagination and was the inspiration of a sea change in racial attitudes.

But it wouldn’t have to be something so momentous. What about snatching a child from the street as a bus is coming?…that would be good. Anyway, one really good thing.

Engineer Bob Ebeling–pronounced EBB-ling–had exactly the opposite situation. He worked for Morton Thiokol, the company that designed the O-rings for the Space Shuttle, the exact piece that failed and caused the Challenger to explode a minute after take-off. He realized that the O-rings performed poorly in cold weather–the temperature had plummeted that January day in 1986–and he raised the issue to his boss, who tried desperately in the day and evening before the launch to stop it. Not only did NASA refuse, but the senior managers at Morton Thiokol didn’t support him either.

On the way to watch the launch, Mr Ebeling leaned over to his daughter in the car and said, “The Challenger is going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die.”

We all know what happened.

Mr. Ebeling’s obituary was in the New York Times yesterday. And of course that is the reason he merits a NYT obituary.

The explosion had a horrible personal effect on him, sending him into a personal tailspin. He left the company and the engineering profession, blaming himself for not having done enough to stop the launch. An NPR just this January, on the 30th anniversary of the explosion–the first time he allowed his name to be known–was an anguished self-examination by an 89-year-old man who still blamed himself for an enormous tragedy. He said God picked the wrong guy for his job, that he just wasn’t strong enough.

There was a huge outpouring of compassion for him after that interview. Hundreds of listeners responded. Among those who did, was Mr. Ebeling’s boss at Thiokol, who called Mr. Ebeling and their conversation was reported in a moving story last month on NPR.

“I told him that he was not a loser, that a loser was someone who has a chance to act but doesn’t, and worse, doesn’t care.

“He really did do something. I told him that if he had not called me, we would never have had the opportunity to try to avert the disaster. They would have just gone ahead with the launch. At least we had the opportunity to try to stop it.”

This circumstance has been taught in universities as a case study in ethical decision making.

Thirty years of anguish, of desperate prayer, or rumination had done nothing to assuage Mr. Ebeling’s guilt. But this recent interaction, in particular hearing from someone on the NASA side, which never had happened before, helped him turn the corner.

“You helped bring my worrisome mind to ease. You have to have an end to everything.”


Fourth in a series, Moments.



About Karen Ray

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