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NASA Engineer Who Questioned Challenger Launch Goes To Private Firm

February 23, 1988

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) _ A space agency engineer who pressed for a delay in the launch of the ill- fated space shuttle Challenger started work Monday at the private aerospace company that built the shuttle booster rocket.

Judson A. Lovingood, 51, joined several other top-ranking officials in leaving the Marshall Space Flight Center since the seven crew members died in the Challenger explosion two years ago.

Lovingood retired Saturday from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where he had worked for 25 years, instead of taking an assignment at NASA headquarters in Washington as deputy director of systems engineering and analysis for the shuttle program.

″He elected to retire in lieu of accepting the assignment for economic and other reasons,″ said a Marshall spokesman, Dave Drachlis. ″Dr. Lovingood has said that he has worked on the shuttle since 1969. The Challenger accident has exacted a great personal toll and he felt it was time for a change.″

Lovingood’s new job is technical director of Morton Thiokol.

He said through a Thiokol spokeswoman that he will be responsible for ″overseeing some technical activities″ at the Huntsville division of Morton Thiokol, whose main shuttle plant is in Utah. His activities were not specified, but he said the company’s Huntsville operation has little connection with the shuttle program.

Lovingood was deputy manager of the shuttle projects office at Marshall when Morton Thiokol engineers recommended against launching the shuttle in cold weather at Cape Canaveral on Jan. 28, 1986.

″I was contacted about 4:30 that afternoon (Jan. 27) by a guy from the cape,″ Lovingood said.

″A point was being made and the point being that I heard that Thiokol people were recommending that we not launch,″ he said. ″I felt like with a recommendation like that that we shouldn’t launch, period.″

A presidential commission that investigated the disaster concluded that the decision-making process prior to the launch was flawed, with the views of Morton Thiokol engineers overruled and critical concerns not relayed to top NASA levels, where officials were pushing for a launch.

The commission said flawed O-rings in the booster rocket allowed hot gases to leak through to the external fuel tank.

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