Key figure in space shuttle accident history lectures at Auburn

By Mike Clardy, Office of Communications and Marketing and Jim Hansen, Professor of History


Challenger explosion (photo courtesy NASA)AUBURN - Allan J. McDonald, director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project at the time of the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986, told an Auburn University audience on Jan. 27 how he warned NASA of the possibility of failure at launch due to cold temperatures affecting the O-Rings of the solid rocket booster.

McDonald spoke to faculty and students at Broun Hall auditorium nearly 25 years to the day of the 1986 Challenger disaster.

In his lecture, McDonald recounted the tragedy as he watched it unfold from where he stood on the morning of Jan. 28 that year at Kennedy Space Center's launch control center, and told of his personal attempts to stop the launch from happening. See a video interview with McDonald on the left of this page.

Subsequent to the disaster, McDonald accurately diagnosed the problem with the troubled rocket booster's joints and was instrumental in implementing the sweeping changes that markedly improved the safety of the Shuttle's future missions.

Along with co-author James Hansen, Auburn history professor and director of the Honors College, McDonald in 2009 published "Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster." The book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' 2011 Gardner-Lasser Aerospace History Literature Award.

McDonald received a B.S. degree in chemical engineering from Montana State University in 1959 and an M.S. degree in engineering administration from the University of Utah in 1967. He retired from ATK Thiokol Propulsion after a 42-year career with the company.

Following the Challenger accident, he led the redesign of the solid rocket motors as vice president of engineering for space operations. He has several patents related to rocket propulsion and has published over 80 technical papers that have been presented in national and international conferences.

He received an honorary doctor of engineering degree from Montana State University in 1986 and was selected as Montana State University's Centennial Alumnus in 1987 by the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges. He is also a fellow member and a distinguished lecturer for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and is currently a member of the board of directors of Orbital Technologies Corporation in Madison, Wisconsin.

More information on Allan J. McDonald and the book, "Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster" can be found on the website at

Last Updated: Jan. 28, 2011

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