Bob Ebeling, 89, has carried a terrible burden for 30 years. He was among several engineers who tried to stop the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, saying the booster rockets' rubber seals wouldn't seal correctly in cold weather. They were unsuccessful in their challenge to contractor Morton Thiokol, and the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after it lifted off on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts on board. Ebeling has been blaming himself ever since, NPR reports. "I think that was one of the mistakes that God made," he says, "But next time I talk to him, I'm gonna ask him, 'Why me. You picked a loser.'" Soon after the shuttle disaster, Ebeling quit his job, daughter Kathy Ebeling tells the Washington Post. He spent the rest of his career working on a bird refuge, "helping people and not destroying people," she says.
But Ebeling's burden has lightened lately thanks to support from fellow engineers and vindication from some of those involved in launching the Challenger, NPR writes in a follow-up. "Your efforts show that your care for people comes first for you," writes engineer Jim Sides. "God didn't pick a loser. He picked Bob Ebeling." Robert Lund, a Thiokol VP who approved the launch, called Ebeling and said, "You did all that you could do." George Hardy, a former NASA official involved in the launch, sent Ebeling a letter: "You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you," he writes. "You should not torture yourself with any assumed blame." Ebeling, who suffers from prostate cancer and has home hospice care, says he "know[s] that is the truth that my burden has been reduced." Kathy Ebeling says the letters have helped her father find peace. "He doesn’t have to die with this nagging guilt," she tells the Post. "He can die free."