Six months before the Challenger disaster, Richard Cook, a budget analyst at NASA, wrote a memo detailing problems with elastic joints in the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. It was Cook’s job to see if the parts, known as O-rings, could cause major budget overruns; he learned that they could do much worse, writing, “There is little question that flight safety has been and is still being compromised by potential failure of the seals, and it is acknowledged that failure during launch would certainly be catastrophic.”
Cook moved on to other projects after writing that memo, passing it on to his supervisors. Engineers told him that they were fixing the problem, Cook says, and he believed them—something he quickly came to regret.
“I was one of the guys who didn’t stop it from happening,” says the 60-year-old College Park resident. “I knew it could blow up the shuttle, and I didn’t go to the newspaper then or walk up to the administrator’s office.”
Cook’s subsequent investigation into Challenger’s design flaws—and, he claims, his discovery of a White House coverup—are the subject of Challenger Revealed: An Insider’s Account of How the Reagan Administration Caused the Greatest Tragedy of the Space Age.
“This is a whistle-blower’s book,” Cook says.
In the book, Cook details how, after the disaster, he handed off several incriminating documents to the New York Times, including the O-ring memo, which later spurred a Pulitzer Prizenwinning article. But, as Cook advanced the careers of several reporters, his own went down the tubes. Although Cook believed his supervisors were suspicious, they didn’t know he leaked the memo until he admitted it a year later in a Houston Chronicle article. Cook drew additional ire from NASA officials when he spoke freely before the presidential commission that investigated the tragedy, saying that the O-ring design flaws—and their potential for disaster—were well-known at NASA.
To avoid retribution, Cook transferred to the Treasury Department. His job was to analyze administrative services—a far cry from the thrill of shuttles and space exploration. But Cook wasn’t ready to put NASA behind him yet. He continued to give quotes to reporters, and he began writing a book on his experiences. The lifelong government employee worked on it for five years after the disaster but ultimately decided not to publish.
“At that time in my life I had kids, I had child support to pay for from my first marriage, and you can only do so much to jeopardize your living,” he says. “So I put [the book] away.”
Though he may have been willing to delay the book’s release for more than a decade for the sake of his career, Cook wasted no time in settling his unfinished business once he was done working for the government. Cook retired from the Treasury Department Jan. 3; Thunder’s Mouth Press published the book on Jan. 11. He’s glad, he says, that he waited so long to publish, because it gave him perspective and kept the book from becoming a personal vendetta against his former bosses.
“I was really quite angry for many years about what NASA had done, about what the presidential commission had done,” Cook says. “But, in the end, I was able to forgive everybody, including myself.”
Cook discusses and signs copies of his work at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.