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A classic tale of engineering gone wrong. Apropos, I designed high-efficiency 20 KHz inverters for the Space Shuttle crew quarters, flight hardware that ended up working flawlessly. But during the design phase, the primary Shuttle contractor revealed that my inverters would be exposed to much higher voltages than they had originally supposed.

When I saw this, I realized we would have to start over and choose different components able to tolerate the higher voltages. My managers disagreed, arguing that if we caused problems, we would be denied a follow-on contract for similar inverters to be deployed in the payload bay. The managers composed a reply to NASA in which there was no problem, things were fine, let's forge ahead.

I was a mere engineer, I had no management authority, and I hadn't been consulted about the reply. When I heard about it, I sat down and wrote a letter of resignation and pushed my letter into more hands than was absolutely necessary. I made some comparisons that at the time might have seemed over the top (like the Apollo file that killed three astronauts, a disaster resulting from lax oversight).

In my case, because of my having distributed the letter farther than was absolutely necessary, my managers were forced to reverse themselves, I was able to redesign my inverters in a safe way, and we got the follow-on contract in spite of not being seen as "team players".

Many years later, at the time of the Challenger disaster, it finally dawned on me that, had I disregarded the overvoltage issue as my managers had wanted me to, and if something had gone wrong, I would have been held personally responsible, because I was the only person with the level of technical knowledge required to make the call, and my managers could disavow any responsibility. At the time, I made the right decision, but for reasons that I hadn't fully thought out -- if my equipment had failed in-flight, I would have been held responsible, and that would have been a perfectly just outcome.

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