Through Hardship to the Stars

The night before the Space Shuttle Challenger was due to lift off, on January 27, 1986, Bob Ebeling tried to talk his boss out of approving the launch. Ebeling was an engineer for a NASA contractor , one of five who worried that the rocket boosters’ “o-rings” might turn brittle in the overnight cold, and that leaking fuel could lead to an explosion. Ebeling’s supervisor refused to stop the launch, and the shuttle exploded the next day, killing 7 astronauts, including a school teacher. A Presidential Commission would later vindicate Ebeling and his colleagues.

Over at NPR, Howard Berkes has written a moving remembrance of Ebeling, who was wracked by guilt for decades. The morning of the launch, Ebeling drove to work to watch the event from a company conference room. He was accompanied by his daughter:

“He said, ‘The Challenger’s going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die,’” [she recalled.] “And he was beating his fist on the dashboard. He was frantic.”

[Live] video of the launch appeared on a large projection screen. When Challenger exploded, [she said], “I could feel [Ebeling] trembling. And then he wept—loudly.”

Ebeling blamed himself for the disaster, and his grief did not subside easily. “I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,” he told Berkes, in a recent NPR interview commemorating the explosion’s 30th anniversary. “He shouldn't have picked me for that job . . . Next time I talk to him, I’m going to ask him, why me? You picked a loser.” Ebeling said he’d experienced deep depression.

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Ebeling ended up leaving his career as an engineer after the Challenger disaster, choosing instead to repair a local bird refuge. In Berkes’ remembrance, Ebeling’s granddaughter describes him as “a man of compassion.”

In the end, his compassion was repaid. After NPR’s anniversary story ran in January, hundreds of readers wrote Ebeling letters. In late February, Ebeling’s daughter told the Washington Post she’d been reading the letters aloud to him.

They appear to have reached him just in time:

The burden began to lift even as Ebeling’s health declined. A few weeks before his death, he thanked those who reached out to him.

“You helped bring my worrisome mind to ease,” Ebeling said.

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This article was originally published on The Atlantic.