(Credit: Timothy R. Butler using elements from NASA and Stable Diffusion)

The Death of a Whistleblower

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 5:30 PM

This story was originally published as the cover story in TROPIC, the magazine of The Miami Herald, July 29, 1990. It is republished this week as part of Dennis E. Powell’s twentieth anniversary remembrance of the second shuttle disaster.

As an engineer in NASA, Bill McInnis had the Right Stuff. Then the space program changed, and it suddenly became the Wrong Stuff. But McInnis couldn’t take a hint. A story about the cost of caring too much.

Bill McInnis called for the last time on Sunday, June 10. It had become a complicated procedure, now that he had no phone. He would get hold of a friend, Dr. Gary Gossinger, on the shortwave radio. Gossinger would call my house to make sure I was home. Then McInnis would walk the half-mile to a pay phone and place the call.

He didn't have much to say that night. It was one of the few short telephone conversations we ever had. He had received an eviction notice, he said. His latest attempt to get the attention of someone in Congress had failed. But for McInnis, neither of those things was news.

Then he said, "My time's just about run out."

He had said that before, its precise meaning vague and menacing. I never pressed him on it. I knew his situation was desperate. But always before, something had turned up; some new hope that he would finally get someone to listen to him, someone to see that we were blowing our chance to reach the stars.

If anything, he sounded calmer this time. His list of recent failures was issued matter-of-factly, without anguish. I was busy — though I forget now what I was doing that was so important — and a little annoyed that he had called without having anything much to say.

It turns out, the one thing he wanted to say went unsaid.


Usually, Bill McInnis had a lot to say. You could hardly get him off the phone.

"Did you see the fire?"

It was early December 1988, and here was McInnis again, on the phone, late at night. Forget sleeping. Forget seeing the end of the movie on TV. There was no such thing as a short conversation with Bill McInnis.

"What fire?"

"The fire from the fuel leak in the line between the ET and the orbiter."

The ET is the external fuel tank, that enormous, rust-brown thing with the shape and explosive potential of a bomb strapped to the belly of the space shuttle.

The shuttle was back in business. Utterly redesigned, the nation was told, and as safe as it could be. Discovery had been launched a few weeks earlier, marking what NASA called the "return to flight."

Reporters and other observers has seen what appeared to be flames shooting down between the shuttle and the external tank as the shuttle climbed through the Earth's atmosphere on its way into space. No, said NASA, those were reflections. Wait a minute, said NASA, we changed our minds — that was "backflow."

"It wasn't a reflection and it wasn't backflow," said McInnis. "It was a hydrogen fire. No doubt about it. Put me in a room with any engineers you want to pick and give me a few hours, and I guarantee you they'll agree with me.

"There's a big problem with that fuel line. The shuttle ought to be grounded until they fix it, because it's unsafe to fly with it. They're going to lose another one, and when they do it will be the end of the space program."

That was his worst fear: that another spectacular tragedy would turn the nation away from space entirely. McInnis sounded heartbroken. He often sounded that way. He was now devoting all his efforts to simply getting someone to listen.

I wasn't the only person he was calling about the fuel line. He called every media and political type he knew even casually. He was sounding the alarm. But his alarm was taken in the halls of power as a car alarm that goes off in the middle of the afternoon: simply an annoyance to be ignored the best one could.

It was all too easy to think of him as being just a bit crazy, or simply an old space hack who refused to let go. Problem was, what he said usually turned out to be right, when it could be confirmed. But often it couldn't be.

Nobody at NASA, for instance, claimed to have any knowledge of a fire or even a leak. No, that was backflow — we already told you that, they said when I asked about it.

"The hell it's backflow — I know backflow," McInnis complained. "All anybody with a brain the size of a pea would need to do to see it isn't backflow is to look at the tapes of other flights and compare them."

Backflow is a phenomenon in which flames and vapors from the shuttle's engines swirl along the shuttle as it rises — a harmless thing. A hydrogen fire could be catastrophic.

McInnis was sure that it was a problem with the 17-inch fuel line, possibly at the big external tank but more likely at the point where it joined the shuttle itself, where it was regulated by a troublesome and newly redesigned piece of hardware called a flapper valve. At his insistence, many of my conversations with him, including those involving the 17-inch fuel line, were taped. Some of those conversations led to an April 9, 1989, story in TROPIC in which he and others offered the view that the shuttle was so riddled with faulty systems that another catastrophic failure was likely. That opinion was embraced nearly a year later by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment and by NASA's own independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

When he first started calling me, I checked his credentials, half expecting him to be some kind of fraud. But he wasn't. McInnis had been one of the top engineers at NASA for a decade. But as time went by, his superiors seemed to be listening to him less and less. He came to believe his bosses were less interested in building safe spacecraft that in proving that NASA's exclusive reliance on the shuttle program for America's space future had not been a colossal mistake.

So he quit. And he went public. He became what some people call a "whistleblower," airing his disputes with NASA in whatever forum he could find. McInnis knew that this would make him persona non grata in the entire aerospace industry. Which made it all more ironic that he wanted only one thing from his personal crusade: to change the space program.

To change it enough that one day he could go back to it.

"You know, Hubble isn't going to work."

Another night, another call — collect — from McInnis. He was speaking about the $1 billion telescope that NASA planned to launch above the Earth's atmosphere for the clearest look ever at the cosmos.

"What do you mean?"

"The cargo bay environment in the shuttle is too dirty, so the mirrors will likely be contaminated. The vibration could easily knock them out of alignment. There are serious software problems. And there's the manufacturing flaw in the main mirror. When it was cast, there was a flaw in the blank, so they turned it down to a smaller size than it was supposed to be. But you watch — they'll go ahead and launch it. It just won't work after they do."

Again, if others knew about these problems they sure weren't talking.

McInnis continued to see things that other people didn't see.

One of his chief concerns was what he was sure had been a main engine compartment fire aboard the doomed Challenger flight. This was crucial because the O-ring seals in the solid rocket motors — the immediate cause of the disaster — had been redesigned. But the shuttle was still flying with the old main engines. If McInnis was right, another shuttle disaster might not be far off.

He had done extensive photo reconstruction, and his arguments that there had been an engine fire were convincing. But the people he convinced were not especially fluent in the art of space engineering, and he was having no luck getting in touch with people who were.

He talked, too, of failures in the thermal protection tiles that keep the shuttle from burning up on re-entry, and of what he believed to have been a lack of proper testing of them before the first launch. And of what he (and others) saw as the utter stupidity of flying with solid rocket motors — the twin cones of highly explosive solid fuel that help lift the shuttle into orbit.

Sometimes, especially toward the end, he seemed obsessed. One day he would despair of ever getting anyone to listen to him. Another day, he would brighten. Channel 7 in Miami was doing a series on people who had come up with alternative explanations of what happened to Challenger. That was sure to get some attention.

Last year he got involved with the Chrystic Institute, an organization that had filed suit to stop the launch of the nuclear-powered Galileo space probe on the shuttle. The shuttle wasn't safe enough to carry a radioactive payload, they argued. McInnis perceived Chrystic as having a leftist political agenda, and his only agenda was to fix the space program. But he went to Washington to help in the lawsuit; maybe it would be a way to get what he knew into the open.

Sometimes he would talk to somebody who knew somebody who had been on the staff of some congressman and might be able to arrange a meeting. He was convinced that once he had a chance to explain what was going on with the shuttle, once he could lay out his evidence, the wheels would get rolling and the situation would get straightened out.

Of course, it never worked that way.

William E. McInnis was a military brat, born in McDermott, Ark., on Aug. 11, 1936, the son of an Army Air Corps chaplain. From the time he could think of doing anything, all he wanted to do was fly airplanes and talk on the shortwave radio.

He was just a few months away from getting his Air Force wings in the late 1950s when his back got wrenched in a high-G maneuver. He washed out of flight school.

McInnis was not one to accept disappointment well. Losing the chance to drive a hot jet fighter around the sky threw him into deep depression.

But there was something new and exciting going on, and he had a chance to become a part of it. The Air Force had noticed his quick mind and ability to apply a principle to a variety of situations. He was given a shot at rocketry and he took it, going to Huntsville, Ala., to learn the complexities of what he called "the art of space engineering."

He picked up a five-year degree in electrical engineering at the University of Florida. His grades weren't all that good. He would argue with his professors. If he was wrong about something, he wanted a full explanation of the error — an explanation good enough to change his mind.

"We would stand outside at night and watch the first satellites go over," remembers his first wife, Joann. "He'd say, 'We're going to the moon someday.' I'd say, 'You think so?' He'd say, 'I know so.' Whatever he did was always with an eye toward the space program."

The summer before his last year in engineering school, he worked as an intern for the AC Spark Plug Co., which had a contract at Cape Canaveral to work on the Titan missile, then solely a weapons delivery system.

His first day on the job, in fact, was the day of the first Titan launch — an important day in the U.S. space program. McInnis was asked to chart some data on the rocket's acceleration. "I wanted to do a good job," he remembered years later, "so I plotted data points that were very close together.

"My boss came in and said that I didn't need to chart it with anything like that fine a resolution. But then he looked at what I'd put down. Instead of a smooth curve, the chart had almost a sawtooth effect. The acceleration, which would have looked smooth had I taken points farther apart, was in fact beset by terrible vibration."

By being obsessively careful, the rookie had accidentally discovered the "pogo effect," a phenomenon that the astronauts would later call "eyeballs out" — the vibration was so great they couldn't read the instruments in the space capsule. McInnis's observation was the first identification of that was to become a significant engineering challenge.

"In those days, we were learning so much all the time," McInnis said. "If you found something unexpected, if you could anticipate a problem, it was great. They wanted you to do that. It was part of the job.

"Back then, you were encouraged to do your job the best you could."

Remembers Joann: "In those early days, [the attitude was] you make a mistake and an astronaut could die."

Old timers at NASA have lots of stories of the way Bill McInnis could find things that had escaped other engineers. How he could find a problem and sometimes fix it before anybody else even knew it existed.

Though he was an electrical engineer, he became proficient in the other engineering fields that contributed to successful space flight. Computers were in their infancy, and McInnis was among the first to master them. But he also had a knack for simply noticing things that others didn't.

There was the time that he discovered the problem with the rendezvous radar. This complicated little gadget allowed two spacecraft to dock with each other, and its perfect functioning was essential to tasks such as bringing astronauts back from the moon.

McInnis was a relatively junior engineer at the time, working for Grumman, one of the giant aerospace companies. To come forward and announce that an important piece of equipment simply wouldn't work was a very risky thing to do. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours had been invested. Reputations were at stake. But McInnis stuck to his guns. In a grueling 12-hour session at Cape Canaveral he presented his findings to dozens of other program engineers. At the end of the day, they were convinced: there was something wrong with the radar. McInnis, who didn't know at the beginning of the day whether he'd still have a job that night, received a commendation from the head of Grumman.

The day the lunar module — the little spaceship in which Apollo astronauts would land on the moon — was to fly its first unmanned orbits above the lunar surface, McInnis was running a high fever. His boss ordered him to the Cape anyway. It was a good thing. The lunar module's rocket, which was supposed to fire for six seconds, shut down after only four. The test looked to be a failure. It was a hardware problem, mission controllers announced grimly.

But that didn't make sense to McInnis. The engine had functioned perfectly for four seconds, then shut down as if someone had thrown a switch. McInnis ran down to the computer room and began to go over the computer code that told the rockets when to fire and for how long. There it was! A simple error in arithmetic.

Word was passed to Houston. The engines were restarted. The test was a success.

The space program in the 1960s was exciting for those involved in it and for those on its edges. The engineering was being made up as they went along, but it was being made up carefully. The whole enterprise had a campus feel to it. The social scene at the Cape consisted of Caesar salads at Ramon's and Friday afternoon parties at the Patrick Air Force Base Officer's Club. Everyone knew everyone else.

"That's when Cocoa Beach was still a beach, and astronauts used to jog over there," remembers Joann. "Especially before the moon shots, because they had the idea that the surface of the moon was like wet sand in its consistency."

McInnis's son Keith, now 25, grew up amid the excitement.

"We'd be having dinner and I'd ask where Dad was," he says. "My mom would say, 'He's over at the launch.'

"Pretty soon, you'd feel the rumble, and everybody would rush out onto the lawn to watch the rocket go up. It was a chant — Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! — you could feel it inside you. Everyone was trying to push the rocket through force of will. My dad always thought of the astronauts as family, and that was the general view there at the time. It was up to all of us to take care of them and protect them."

But by the time the Eagle had landed, things were winding down at the Cape. Most of the development work for the moon landings had been done.

"There were highly qualified engineers pumping gas there," says Joann. "There had been layoffs, and anybody who still had a job was considered lucky.

"One day in 1969, Bill came home from work — I don't remember which contractor he was working for at the time — and said that he had resigned. It was over an ethical issue. He said it was because they were wrong — and that's the way it was." Joann doesn't remember what the issue was, and McInnis never mentioned it to me. But whatever the cause, he was out of work for several months.

Joann, a nurse, worked with the wife of Grady Williams, the ranking engineer at Kennedy Space Center. They got to talking. Here were the McInnises, with a young son and a house to pay for and Bill out of work. Bill had developed a reputation for sticking to his guns, which could make him either a man of great integrity or a real pain, depending on how you looked at it.

"I learned to respect Bill rather highly for his intelligence and his perseverance," remembers Grady Williams. "If there was something wrong in design, he could find it. He was a very intelligent guy and he was always a very capable trouble-hunter.

"He was always a pessimist, a little bit of a doomsayer. I felt sorry for Bill, and I admired him in many respects. If the things that troubled him had been alleviated, he would have been a great genius."

Williams felt sorry for McInnis because he knew that NASA was becoming ever less welcoming to pessimists. The public's attention was waning, the cost of space exploration exploding. The people who picked designs apart, demanded that they be rethought and reworked, inevitably got in the way.

But Williams took a chance and hired him anyway. McInnis became a kind of general engineering trouble-shooter. Problem with the Apollo mission simulator? Call McInnis. Some bug in the flight software? McInnis could find it.

"You had to have some knowledge of Bill's personality to be able to work with him," says Williams. "But then he contributed significantly."

"He was a very good engineer," says Sam Beddingfield, a colleague from the early days. "He was a maverick in the best sense of the word, and that did not always sit comfortably with people. But he did good work. His work on the landing radar for the space shuttle was excellent."

As lead engineer developing the shuttle's automatic landing system, McInnis was responsible for making sure that the unpowered shuttle — "essentially, a controlled brick," is how he described its flight characteristics — would land exactly where it was supposed to land, every time. There were no go-rounds. The shuttle was coming down. It was up to McInnis and his team to make sure that the right patch of ground was under it when it did.

It is one of the few shuttle systems that has never failed.

McInnis and Joann divorced in 1972, though they remained friends. Both remarried.

"He had two great loves — everything related to flight and space, and amateur radio, and any woman would have to take a back seat to that," she says.

McInnis rose through the ranks at NASA. His stubbornness was offset by the fact that he was usually right. In 1976, he transferred to NASA headquarters in Washington.

The agency was declining," he said years later. "It was in disarray. I hoped I could do something to help turn things around."

Though he was concerned about the course the agency had charted, McInnis continued to rise in NASA. He was named software manager, then promoted to manager of risk assessment. His duties were broadened, and soon he was manager of program evaluation.

"It was a job where the most mild-mannered of people would make enemies, and Bill wasn't the most mild-mannered of people by any means," says an engineer still at NASA headquarters.

"He would tell you exactly what he thought," is how Sam Beddingfield puts it.

He received great support from his boss, Dr. Walt Williams, NASA's chief engineer at the time. When McInnis found serious problems in the way the main engines of the space shuttle were being tested, he went to Williams, who ordered an immediate change. For a time, McInnis felt he was doing some real good.

But the condition was only temporary. Top people in the chief engineer's office were retiring or moving to private industry. NASA was becoming increasingly political. Williams moved to California to oversee the shuttle project (the shuttle was being built in California by Rockwell International), then retired from the agency. The chief engineer's office became less influential and was finally abolished.

"I had many discussions with others in NASA, at all levels of the organization, about all of this," McInnis later wrote in a running computer file recounting his doomed engineering career. "The broad consensus, NASA was going down the tubes. There was simply too much 'deferred maintenance' of all the things necessary to keep the organization going, budget, research, people, experience, programs, and most important, espirit de corps. After a while I began to refer to this complex of symptoms as 'NASA's going out of business sale.'

"We were going to kill people and we were going to kill the space program. The whole place was being terribly mismanaged, and the space program was doomed. I still hoped there was some way to turn it around."

He continued to "red flag" areas where he thought there were problems, but his superiors seemed uninterested.

Finally, McInnis wrote: "It was announced that I was to be transferred to the Reliability and Quality Assurance Office for Shuttle . . . This group had become the mechanism for dealing with those who were considered to be a problem. It was a 'classic NASA setup.' They had found a way to demote me and 'put me in the closet' . . . I announced that I was resigning. A few hours later I was approached by one of the program managers in the Office of Space Science and Applications. I had asked him previously about the possibility of a position in his office. He told me that the associate administrator was in Europe, that he had been called and that he asked if I would delay my resignation for a week until he got back. When he returned he met with the chief engineer and asked that I be transferred to his office. The chief engineer flatly refused. I resigned."

"There wasn't any reason for me to stay — I couldn't do any good for the space program from there," he told me once. "It was clear that if NASA were to be fixed, it would have to be done from outside the agency. I thought, naively it turned out, that if important people outside NASA knew what was happening, they would change it."

Regulations prohibit Civil Service employees from directly contacting Congress, and McInnis had never "gone public" with his complaints. But now he was free to do so.

"I contacted [Florida Representative] Bill Nelson's office," McInnis said. "He was chairman of the Space Subcommittee, and I was sure he would want to know what was really going on. I never got past his staff people, and he ended up going for the goodies — a ride on the space shuttle."

No one in Nelson's office even remembers McInnis. Nelson spokesman David Dickerson: "Bill, despite his flight aboard a shuttle, is not an engineer. People come in passionately concerned about a highly technical issue. They forget that Congress deals in the big picture, billions of dollars, multiyear projects, hundreds of thousands of employees. We often try to turn people back toward their agency."

McInnis had no more luck when he tried to get in touch with others in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate who had oversight of NASA. He seldom made it past the first tier of staff people. After a while, even they wouldn't take his calls.

If McInnis's talents were unappreciated in his last days at NASA, the space agency today is not hesitant to hold him in some esteem.

"He was in a very high, very responsible position here at headquarters, and before that he was in a responsible position at the Cape," says William Sheehan, associate administrator for communications. "His contributions were very significant ones, and his reputation here is for having done good work.

"After he left, he had some reservations about the fix on the shuttle, which he wasn't shy about voicing."

But none of that helped McInnis then, when he needed a job.

Though he had been approached by contractors while he was still at NASA, he found that none of them had a job for him after he quit. He had been making too much noise. Word gets around.

His applications, both to the newly emerging private rocket launching companies and to such concerns as the European Space Agency, were returned. He was, they said, overqualified. He found work analyzing mission safety for a company that insures payloads of rockets and the space shuttle. But, because there were no new launch vehicles being developed, once that job was done it required no updating.

"I don't know the specifics of this case," says an engineer working with one of the big shuttle contractors. "but look at it this way: You're working closely with NASA. They're angry at the guy. Are you going to hire him?"

McInnis entered his spiral of depression and vain hope. Soon, his second wife left him.

"The problem with the word 'whistleblower'," says Roger Boisjoly, "is that it conveys the impression of somebody who comes in like Sherlock Holmes and snoops around, looking for ways to get people in trouble."

Boisjoly was the Morton-Thiokol engineer who became famous when it was discovered that he had pleaded that the doomed Challenger launch be postponed because of the faulty O-ring design on the shuttle's solid rocket motors. Six months before the launch he wrote a memorandum of warning: "It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to solve the problem we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight." Morton-Thiokol ignored the memo. The O-rings failed.

Some people thought Boisjoly should have been hailed a hero. But not everyone.

After he testified before the presidential commission investigating the shuttle disaster, he was stripped of his staff, demoted, and then, he says, forced out of his job through "mental torment." He had been one of the top engineers in the business, but suddenly he couldn't find a job. "I hope and pray," Boisjoly wrote at the time, "that I have not risked my job and family security for being honest in my conviction."

He had.

"Your industry wants nothing to do with you," he says, now that years of unemployment have finally ended with the start up of his own consulting business. "If you are consistently right and persistently demand excellence, you become one giant red light. You pay an enormous price. I didn't know what that price would be — I was just doing my job.

"That's where the Sherlock Holmes image is wrong. The people who are most likely to red flag problems are too busy to go looking for trouble. They're merely being conscientious about their own jobs.

"But in studies that have been done, it's been shown that careers are damaged or ruined. Those who have been labeled 'whistleblowers' are banned from their industry. It typically takes five to eight years to recover, and then it's only because the people involved move into a different field."

Boisjoly and McInnis got to know each other a little in the last year, after I introduced them to each other.

"He told me about his doubts about the official explanation of what happened to Challenger," says Boisjoly. "And he told me about the other fuel leaks. I'm not a fuels guy, but his explanations made sense to me."

Boisjoly described McInnis as "an extremely talented and caring individual who got caught in an agency that was filled with talent, where a few power brokers were screwing it up for everybody.

"He told me that when he went back to NASA headquarters a few times, old colleagues would slap him on the back and talk with him — when they were in private. When they were in groups, they shunned him. That's been my experience, too."

Indeed, for this article several people still with NASA and its contractors would talk about McInnis only on the condition that their names not be used and, in some cases, that they not be quoted directly. They then went on to praise him or to confirm his account of events.

Someone can get unfairly branded in any industry but, says Boisjoly, there is something about the aerospace industry that makes it all the crueler: The good people, the people likely to get themselves in trouble for slowing things down, feel a great personal responsibility for the lives that are at stake.

"There was an engineer, Mike Clemens, who worked on the O-rings at the Cape. He and I agreed that there was a problem. His boss disagreed, and that was that. He hadn't a gnat's chance of changing his boss's mind.

"But he took Challenger personally. He thought it was his fault.

"He was terribly depressed, and finally he killed himself."

When McInnis left NASA, he looked back on a life that had been centered on the space program. It was all he had ever done and all he ever wanted to do.

His applications for employment were often made half-heartedly. It may be, say friends and family, that sometimes he truly wanted to leave NASA behind him. But deep down inside, he had decided to stake everything on being able to fix the things he believed were wrong with NASA in general and the space shuttle program in particular.

"He was driven by what he believed to be true," says Keith. "If someone would have been able to convince him he was wrong, which would have taken a lot of convincing, he would have been the first to be pleased by it. He was interested in the truth, and while he believed the truth was being denied he couldn't stand idly by."

The only thing that could have saved him would have been to be proven wrong. He would have been able to do other things, to let the NASA days go and get on with his life.

It is a mistake sometimes to ask a person "How are you?" because he might tell you. McInnis would always tell you, but you would always ask. In recent years the answer would invariably include the sentence, "I don't have much time left."

It was chilling. He never really said what he meant, and I never really wanted to hear it.

His car was repossessed in February; it had been a year earlier also, but friends and family had chipped in then and got it back for him. The cupboard in his apartment was bare. Friends from the amateur radio club would have him over for dinner and toss him a few bucks for a new supply of Benson & Hedges.

His telephone was disconnected, effectively cutting him off from those he wanted to reach. On June 8, he received an eviction notice.

A close friend from the amateur radio club, Marty Scott, had a guest house. Bill was welcome to stay there. Others in the club contributed to a fund to help him find a new apartment and pay for it. A job with a communications consulting firm, a job that included a car, was lined up for him.

"We were all on the radio Sunday night and had it all fixed up," says Marty Scott. "We'd go over in the morning and help him get moved. Then he got off to make a phone call — that was to you." McInnis's new life was to begin the very next day.

But Bill McInnis had decided long ago that a new life wasn't what he wanted. He wanted his old life — his life in the space program — back.

He got off the phone with me that night, June 10, walked back home to his computers and printed out a note that he had been writing and updating since the days after his departure from NASA, plus a couple of reminders to return various borrowed items to their owners. He left the printouts on the printer.

He looked through the papers and books that had been left him by his father, the military chaplain. He read from the book of Jeremiah, the reluctant Old Testament prophet who was ordered by God to carry His truth to the unbelievers again and again even though he was scorned and persecuted as a result.

For since I spake, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil; because the word of the Lord was made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily.

Then I said, I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name. But His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.

He had bought a gun in Virginia shortly after he left NASA. Late that night or early the next morning, Bill McInnis lay on his bed in his apartment and put a bullet through his head.

His body was found by the deputy sheriff who had come to evict him.

Sixteen days later, NASA announced sadly that there was a manufacturing defect in the mirror of the Hubble space telescope. Hubble didn't work.

Two days after that, NASA announced the discovery of hydrogen leaks in the 17-inch fuel lines between the external tank and the space shuttle's main engines.

The space shuttle fleet was grounded.

Sitting on the moon, in a place called the Sea of Tranquility, is the bottom part of a lunar module. When it landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, it carried the first human beings to visit another celestial body. In the weatherless vacuum of space, it will remain there, undisturbed, probably forever.

On one of the metal legs of that module, under another piece of equipment, is a brief inscription, scratched by the hand of a Grumman employee who helped build it.

It says: "Bill McInnis."

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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