The Rocket Scientists' Go-To Guy

It takes a smart lawyer to work with rocket scientists

Published in 2005 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

By Renaldo Migaldi on January 13, 2005

On a side table in the conference room of his 24th-floor Chicago law office, Larry Kaplan keeps a rocket nozzle — or, as aerospace engineers call it, an “exit cone.” About 3 feet high, it’s made of a dull black material called carbon-carbon, which looks and feels a bit like pencil lead. When you pick it up, it’s much lighter than you expect. It found its way into Kaplan’s possession because of his specialty in cases involving aviation and rocketry, a career that has also given him detailed knowledge of the Hubble Space Telescope mishap and the 1986 Challenger disaster.

Kaplan explains that in the mid-1980s, when NASA was still trying to make money with the space shuttle by using it to launch telecommunications satellites, it contracted with McDonnell Douglas to build a Payload Assist Module. McDonnell Douglas in turn contracted with rocket manufacturers Morton Thiokol to design a rocket motor to carry each satellite away from the shuttle and into its own higher orbit. Thiokol subcontracted a California company called Hitco Carbon Composites to provide the nozzle. “They decided they would attempt to test and design a rocket motor that used this new carbon-carbon material for the entire exit cone, which would save a ton of weight over the prior material,” Kaplan says. “It has incredible strength-to-weight qualities.”
Hitco’s carbon-carbon cones worked fine until 1984, when two $200 million communications satellites owned by Western Union and the government of Indonesia ended up in the wrong orbits, rendering them useless. Thiokol’s engineers concluded that the exit cones had blown to pieces and traced the failure to flaws undetected by Hitco’s quality control, which had relied on X-rays. “As they would only later learn, only through CAT scanning could you detect these variations,” says Kaplan, who defended Thiokol when it was sued by shuttle contractor McDonnell Douglas.
The case went to a federal bench trial, and McDonnell Douglas’ claim against Thiokol was completely denied. Kaplan was able to show that the carbon-carbon exit cones represented a cutting-edge technology so extreme that McDonnell Douglas could not have believed Thiokol could guarantee their performance. “Eventually [Hitco] went through their entire inventory of exit cones and applied this new quality-control tool, and tossed a lot of exit cones as a result,” Kaplan says. “And eventually it was decided that it was not cost-efficient to make them. They just scrapped using them altogether. Which is why I’ve got one. I don’t even know if mine’s defective or not. They used to go for $41,000 apiece, and they became valueless.”
Kaplan’s work on this case led directly to his defending Thiokol when it was sued by families of the ill-fated Challenger crew, who charged that Thiokol’s managers should have stopped the January 1986 launch when the weather at Cape Canaveral became too cold for its shuttle rocket engines to function safely. “We were attempting to show that NASA had failed to report certain information to Morton Thiokol and that it was at least as a partial result of that failure that Morton Thiokol had agreed for the launch to go forward,” says Kaplan, who worked on the case with his partner and lead attorney John Adler. All the families’ lawsuits were settled before going to trial.
In addition to his legal activities, Kaplan is a songwriter and musician who sponsors a Chicago-area youth choral ensemble called the Shining Lights, which has recorded two albums of his sunny softrock tunes about Jewish religion and traditions. Having also published a musical play called Clap Your Hands as well as a legal volume titled Complex Federal Litigation, he sees a clear connection between his work as a songwriter and as a trial lawyer. “When you go to trial, you’re telling a story to the jury,” he says. “It’s almost like you’re the producer of a Broadway show, because you need to map out the story that needs to be told about the incident that’s at the heart of a trial. You’ve got to know where are your peaks and valleys — not so much that you want valleys, but if you know they’re there, how to best soften their impact. And really, the jury is an audience. Certainly all trial lawyers see the performance angle in that.”

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