30 Years After Shuttle Disaster, Engineer’s Guilt Eased by Flood of Letters

30 Years After Shuttle Disaster, Engineer’s Guilt Eased by Flood of Letters

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Shuttle ChallengerFinal Launch public domain NASA

It was a heartbreaking story that launched a heart warming response from hundreds of people – helping turn around an elderly man’s 30-year battle with depression and guilt.

Bob Eberling was almost a hero. The 89-year-old was working with NASA back in 1986, when he rallied his fellow engineers to try to stop a Space Shuttle launch. They warned that cold weather could cause cracks in its engine seals leading to a fuel leak, but officials ignored them and went ahead with the launch.

Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its final flight and Eberling silently carried guilt over the next 30 years for not doing enough.


He talked about that guilt when NPR News interviewed him for a story on the 30th anniversary of the disaster. He said that ever since then he has felt like “a loser.”

Ebeling was suddenly deluged with hundreds of messages of comfort from former associates– and even from complete strangers.

With failing eyesight, Ebeling relied on his daughter to read aloud the stacks of kind letters and emails from around the country.

“Your efforts show that your care for people comes first for you,” wrote Jim Sides, an engineer who cried over the story. “God didn’t pick a loser, He picked Bob Ebeling.”

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His former boss, Allan McDonald, didn’t want to waste precious time writing words of encouragement, he phoned Ebeling as soon as he heard the interview.

“You did something and you really cared,” McDonald told Ebeling. “That’s the definition of a winner.”

“You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you,” wrote George Hardy, a NASA engineer who’d disagreed with Ebeling at the time. “God bless you.”

His daughter says the letters from strangers and former associates triggered an almost instant improvement in the depression that’s plagued Ebeling since the Challenger disaster. But she says it was an official statement from NASA that put his mood into orbit:

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“We honor [the Challenger astronauts] not through bearing the burden of their loss, but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant, and to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up, so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.”

(LISTEN to the story from NPR below) — Photo: NASA

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