Bent Out of Shape

There's a ghost in the machine, says engineer Ali AbuTaha, a fatal flaw in the design and the launch procedure of the space shuttle. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) thinks it has exorcised the demon, putting ten successful shuttle missions under its belt since the Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986. But the poltergeist is still on the loose, threatening to sabotage the shuttle's flight manifest for the Nineties by knocking off tiles, warping booster segments, cracking main engine pumps, puncturing holes in fuel lines, and crippling multimillion-dollar payloads.

The trouble with telling people you've seen a ghost is that no one will believe you. Ali AbuTaha learned that the hard way. An engineering consultant from Reston, Virginia, AbuTaha was alarmed by errors and inconsistencies he detected in the Rogers Commission report, the official postmortem of the Challenger disaster, released in 1986. So he pursued his own investigation - not merely with pen and paper, but by visiting the launch site, conducting extensive interviews with NASA officials and engineers, and by painstakingly analyzing footage of the Challenger's 73-second flight. Filtered to eliminate glare, AbuTaha says, those films reveal a radically different sequence of events than that delineated by the Rogers Commission, a panel of scientists, astronauts, and politicians appointed by President Ronald Reagan to investigate the tragedy.

The conventional wisdom promulgated by the Rogers Commission - and accepted by the media - is that Challenger was done in by a defective gasket, an O-ring in the shuttle's solid-fuel boosters. According to Rogers Commission investigators, the explosion that shattered the shuttle and sent it cascading into the Atlantic Ocean was touched off by hot gases leaking through the failed O-ring.

But AbuTaha believes that the ghost that crept into the shuttle has little to do with failed O-rings. He doesn't dispute that the O-ring eventually gave way, but insists it wasn't the primary cause of the disaster (see sidebar: "What About Those O-Rings?"). He traces the Challenger disaster - and future disasters if his warnings aren't heeded - to a radical change in launch procedures that was mandated by NASA officials just prior to the shuttle's maiden voyage in 1981. The change in launch procedures, says AbuTaha, has subjected every mission to liftoff forces far exceeding the hardware's safety margins. It was physical forces unleashed by this change that cracked the Challenger's right solid-fuel booster and ultimately destroyed the craft.

To some aeronautics experts, AbuTaha is an engineer with an honorable cause. To NASA he's an annoying gadfly who is taking advantage of the space agency's recent problems with the Hubble Space Telescope and leaky fuel lines. (Although AbuTaha doesn't claim that his theory explains away every shuttle glitch, he says it can account for the shuttle's recurring fuel-line problems and some of the space telescope's navigational

"Every couple of months he does a press conference," says NASA spokesman Mark Hess. "Basically, he attributes every problem that comes up in NASA to his theories. It just keeps going on and on and on." Hess says the agency is zeroing in on the exact location and cause of the leaks and intends to launch its next shuttle mission in early September.

The Challenger flaws have been corrected, says Hess, adding that the space agency is satisfied with the Rogers Commission O-ring explanation. "The shuttle has flown ten flights since then. It's gotten to the point where everybody has moved on and people don't want to rehash it."

AbuTaha has been pestering NASA since the fall of 1986, repeatedly applying for agency contracts to pursue his research and being turned down every time. To date, AbuTaha claims, he has spent $152,000 from his own pocket on the one-man shuttle investigation, forcing him to mortgage his home four times, spend his life savings, and borrow from friends to support his family. Worse still, AbuTaha contends, the space agency has blackballed him, making it almost impossible for him to obtain contract work in the aerospace industry.

One proof of the campaign against AbuTaha is a sharply worded letter to the president of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., from NASA's manager of the solid rocket motor project office, Royce E. Mitchell. Mitchell expressed "surprise" that the university was offering a continuing education class taught by AbuTaha about the Challenger accident. "I have been exposed to a number of Mr. AbuTaha's qualitative analyses regarding the Challenger accident, and I find them to be flawed and his conclusions unsupportable," Mitchell writes in his February 1989 letter. Mitchell's protest failed to block the class, which attracted staff from an array of federal agencies and space contractors - the Johnson Space Center, the Naval Ordnance Station, the Environmental Protection Agency, Boeing, IBM, Martin Marietta, and McDonnell Douglas.

Every tragedy spawns its brood of conspiracy theories, and the Challenger disaster is no exception. Second-guessers have pinned the blame on a plethora of factors, from wind shear to Soviet sabotage. Washington Times columnist Warren Brookes several months ago fingered the EPA for its crackdown on asbestos-based products. The EPA's "witch hunt," Brookes wrote, forced NASA to switch from a perfectly satisfactory asbestos-based putty used to line rocket joints to an inferior - and fatal - substitute.

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Greg Kitsock