I’m reading Truth, Lies, and O-Rings (subtitled Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster).  It’s a hard slog.

The book is written by Allan McDonald, who was an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the company that made the solid rocket boosters for the shuttle.  Engineers are known for being very detailed, and Mr. McDonald fits the mold.  I know more about tangs and clevises (clevii?), zinc chromate putty, and filament-wound cases than I ever thought possible.

And yet there are lapses.  McDonald includes a harmful story about how his boss had hand-applied some of that putty before every test of the solid rocket booster, in a procedure different than what was used for every launch.  The boss was skewing the tests!  Yet instead of naming the boss, McDonald refers to him as “my boss”.  True, but not accurate.  McDonald writes that the missing putty “had been repaired by my boss” and that McDonald “was very upset with my boss” (both on p.31).  On the next page, “I told him this was stupid” and then “[h]e wasn’t too happy with me”.  So is McDonald writing a tell-all without telling all?  Nope – he names his boss on page 62.  This is just sloppy editing.

Capitalization problems: “shuttle” is always capitalized.  I can let that one pass, I guess, since it McDonald’s main focus (in the book and in his professional life).  It seems as if he’s speaking about it with reverence every time he talks about it.  That could be a stylistic thing.  But when he fails to capitalize “Air Force” and “Navy”, that’s a goof.  Those are their names, and should be capitalized.  See p.10 for “air force” and p.11 for “navy”.  And to be clear, McDonald is not talking about the color, he’s talking about “the navy’s Trident” submarine missile.

There are times when he seems to be showing off.  At the bottom of p.29 he complains about the acronyms that NASA uses, and he whips off a list of fifty of them to demonstrate how overwhelmed he is – without an explanation of them.  There is a list of abbreviations on p.585, but the list in the text seems like a glory-hog moment.  And then on p.73 McDonald relates how a replacement manager in NASA didn’t know the ropes.  People ridiculed him by saying that when he “was told to hold the LOX”, he went out and bought some bagels.  The joke is funny if you know that LOX is Liquid OXygen, not smoked salmon, but McDonald assumes that everybody understands one of the same abbreviations he was complaining about earlier.

At one point there is an explosion in a Utah plant where the boosters are created.  McDonald had been on a plane to another state at the time.  He reports that when he landed, another Morton Thiokol employee ran up to the plane shouting

“A major fire has just occurred in the propellant casting area where the Space Shuttle solid rocket motors are manufactured back in Utah.  The early morning radio reports indicated that several explosions had occurred and a large number of people may have been killed!”

Oh, please stop.  If a guy runs up to an airplane with big news like that, he does not include detailed explanations.  I’d accept “There was a big explosion in the propellant casting area!  Might have lost some folks.” with a followup in the book of where the casting area was and what it did.  But as written (on p.19), it almost sounds like an opera.

A couple other points: the book is published by the University Press of Florida, so there probably wasn’t a commercial editor involved.  There may have been a professional one, but not one with an eye for making this an easy read.  And the book is co-authored by James R. Hansen, who happens to share most of a name with James E. Hansen, who works for NASA and is a big backer of global warming (and the fact that We Have To Do Something Right Now!).  The author Hansen warns us in the book’s foreword that

The account that he has put together is, yes, detailed to a fault and tremendously meticulous in the telling, because that is who he is, and that is what his engineering has all been about, and that is the only way the real truth behind the Challenger accident can ever finally come out.

Kinda rough when your co-author warns people about the finished product.  And I have a quibble about publishing engineering papers as popular books.  I found this in the local library, not in a university’s science section.  This was presented as a book for the public.  If I didn’t have a passion for space, I’d have dumped this.

I really hope I don’t feel the same way after I finish reading it.  I’m on page 80 out of about 600.