Robert Venon Ebeling
September 4, 1926 ~ March 21, 2016
Viewing: Friday, March 25, from 6-8 p.m. and again on Saturday from 1-1:40 p.m. at Gillies Funeral Chapel, 634 East 200 South
Funeral services: Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 2:00 p.m. at Gillies Funeral Chapel, 634 East 200 South, Brigham City, Utah
Robert “Bob” Vernon Ebeling, 89, of Brigham City, Utah, was a man of deep and abiding faith who has joined the God and Savior he unshakably cherished. Bob played a major role in a tragic and historic event in 1986. He was one of five engineers at booster rocket maker Morton Thiokol, Inc., who tried to stop the fatal launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. He had also warned Thiokol in an October, 1985, memo marked “HELP!” that a task force setup to address problems with the joints in the shuttle boosters faced unnecessary delays in its work. “This is a red flag,” the memo concluded. On the morning of January 27, 1986, Bob heard that the overnight temperatures at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida would be well below freezing. The Challenger shuttle was scheduled for launch the next day and Bob worried that the cold temperatures would stiffen the rubber o-rings that seal the booster joints and prevent burning rocket fuel from escaping. He called his supervisor, Allan McDonald, who was Thiokol’s launch representative in Florida, and sounded the first warning about the cold launch-time temperatures. McDonald provided a more precise forecast and organized a teleconference involving NASA officials, Thiokol executives and company engineers. Bob and his colleagues Roger Boisjoly, Arnie Thompson and Brian Russell worked together at the Thiokol complex near Promontory, Utah, to retrieve data about the o-ring issue from previous shuttle flights. They recommended that Challenger not launch at temperatures below 53 degrees F. A contentious, sometimes angry meeting followed, in which NASA officials resisted a delay, and Thiokol executives eventually decided to overrule the engineers. The next morning, Bob and Boisjoly watched the launch on a large projection screen in a crowded Thiokol conference room. When Challenger exploded they wept, and as they told two NPR reporters three weeks later, anonymously, they knew exactly what happened and why. The Challenger tragedy left Bob distraught and consumed by guilt. “I could have done more,” he told NPR at the time. “I should have done more.” He soon retired from Thiokol and sought solace in volunteer work at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near his home. Bob established The Friends of the Refuge group in 1989 in response to Great Salt Lake flooding that had damaged the Refuge. He was frustrated by insufficient federal funding for repairs. So, he helped raise more than $40,000 and used his engineering skills to help restore Bear River’s dikes and water control structures. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush presented Bob with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Award. He continued work as a Refuge volunteer for 22 years. His efforts to save that valued local landmark earned him a stint as Grand Marshall of Brigham City’s Peach Days celebration in 2013. That same year, Bob was again honored for his commitment to the birds and other wildlife at Bear River. He was named the National Wildlife Refuge System Volunteer of the Year by the National Wildlife Refuge Association and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. “The Refuge is better off today than it was before the flood, [which is a] testament to Bob’s steadfast vision.” Said Al Trout, a former Refuge Manager. Bob had logged more than 10,000 hours as a volunteer at Bear River. Bob grew up in Chicago, the son of Irene Kramer and Ado Ebeling, who was an automobile mechanic and repaired cars for gangster Al Capone. The family later moved to La Jolla, California, where Bob went to high school and became a scuba diver. He loved the outdoors and wildlife. During World War II, Bob served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army in the Philippines. In 1949, he married Darlene Popejoy, who remained the love of his life until his death. Bob is survived by his wife Darlene, daughters Kathleen Ebeling, Leslie Serna, Judy Kirwan and Terrie Johnston. A son, Verle Ebeling, preceded him in death. The Ebelings had 30 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. Bob had a difficult time with the guilt he felt for his role in the Challenger tragedy. It plagued him for three decades, until an NPR reporter interviewed him again on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger launch. The resulting story prompted an outpouring of supportive letters, e-mails and phone calls from hundreds of NPR readers and listeners. Many said his efforts to stop the Challenger launch were heroic. His former Thiokol supervisor, Allan McDonald, reminded Bob of the pivotal role he played in bringing attention to the launch risk. Bob also received supportive messages from NASA and two of the people who rejected the arguments of the Thiokol engineers in 1986 – a former NASA official and a former executive of Morton Thiokol. They said the Challenger launch decision was not his burden to bear. Bob said to those who reached out to him, “You helped bring my worrisome mind to ease. You have to have an end to everything.” His family says he died at peace. Funeral services will be held on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at Gillies Funeral Chapel, 634 East 200 South, Brigham City, Utah, at 2:00 p.m. A viewing will be held at Gillies Funeral Chapel, 634 East 200 South, Friday, March 25, from 6-8 p.m. and again on Saturday from 1-1:40 p.m. Those wishing to honor Bob’s legacy may make donations in his name to The Friends of the Refuge, C/O John Bunderson 102 South 100 West, Brigham City, Utah 84302. An avid hunter, Bob asked that he be buried in his hunting clothes and with an American Flag, in honor of the country he served and loved. The family wishes to thank the hospice nurses Brenda and Wendy for their care of Bob.
He set a wonderful example of the power and results of dedicated volunteers. He earned every honor given his service. He was my friend.
Grandma Judy parker I leave you my heart felt condolences. If there's anything I can do. I'm a call away. Much love. He will be miss
The McCullough family sends their love & prayers to Darlene and the girls during this time of loss. Bob will always be remembered fondly by us and often with laughter! His huge heart, strength of will and determination to do the right thing are his legacies. God Bless you Darlene, Kathleen, Leslie, Judy and Terrie - our hearts are with you!
Phyllis Branson, Betty McCullough & Clint McCullough
I am heartbroken that your father suffered such intense guilt and suffering. The public needs to recognize him as a man of integrity and surreal courage to stand up to NASA. Too bad that his warnings fell on deaf ears. RIP Mr. Ebeling. Love to your family.
The problem was cold temperture and the blame goes to NASA managers! We built a wonderful product! You had a wonderful air boat!
Howard (85 in Layton)
Scott Andy,and myself are so very sorry for the loss of your dad,he sounds like he was an wonderful man,I was looking through the obituary,and I saw your father.you are a special person,and still are Andy's favorite teacher.please give your family our deepest condolences with much love,
June,Scott and Andy
We only knew Bob a short time through the Peach City Good Sam chapter. He was a fun man to be around and we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know him. We have missed both him and Darlene in our chapter. Our condolences to Darlene and his family.
To all of Bob's family saying goodbyes to Bob today, we pray that you will know the peace of our Lord whom he loved and served. We wish we could be with you today to celebrate his life and his life to come. Thanks be to God.
Marvin and Doreen Anderson
I don't know Bob but just listening to his words, I felt his deep dedication to his job and to life itself. I can tell he was a good human being. I was sad to hear about the guilt he bore for the last 30 years but he was overruled by NASA and that was out of his hands. I extend my sympathies to the people who surrounded his life with support and love.