Challenger Disaster

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Engineering Ethics Case Study:
The Challenger Disaster
Course No: LE3-001
Credit: 3 PDH

Mark Rossow, PhD, PE, Retired

Continuing Education and Development, Inc.
9 Greyridge Farm Court
Stony Point, NY 10980
P: (877) 322-5800
F: (877) 322-4774

Engineering Ethics Case Study: The
Challenger Disaster
Mark P. Rossow, P.E., Ph.D.

© 2012 Mark P. Rossow
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any manner without the written permission of the author.


On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger burst into flame shortly after liftoff. All passengers aboard the vehicle were killed. A presidential commission was formed to investigate the cause of the accident and found that the O-ring seals had failed, and, furthermore, that the seals had been recognized as a potential hazard for several years prior to the disaster. The commission’s report, Report to the President by the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, stated that because managers and engineers had known in advance of the O-ring danger, the accident was principally caused by a lack of communication between engineers and management and by poor management practices. This became the standard interpretation of the cause of the Challenger disaster and routinely appears in popular articles and books about engineering, management, and ethical issues.

But the interpretation ignores much of the history of how NASA and the contractor’s engineers had actually recognized and dealt with the O-ring problems in advance of the disaster. When this history is considered in more detail, the conclusions of the Report to the President become far less convincing. Two excellent publications that give a much more complete account of events leading up to the disaster are The Challenger Launch Decision by Diane Vaughan, and Power To Explore -- History of Marshall Space Flight Center 1960-1990 by Andrew Dunar and Stephen Waring. As Dunar and Waring put it—I would apply their remarks to Vaughan’s work as well— “Allowing Marshall engineers and managers to tell their story, based on pre-accident documents and on post-accident testimony and interviews, leads to a more realistic account of the events leading up to the accident than that found in the previous studies.” I would strongly encourage anyone with the time and interest to read both of these publications, which are outstanding works of scholarship. For those persons lacking the time—the Vaughan book is over 550 pages—I have written the present condensed description of the Challenger incident. I have drawn the material for Sections 1-8 and 10 from multiple sources but primarily from Vaughan, the Report to the President, and Dunnar and Waring. Of course, any errors introduced during the process of fitting their descriptions and ideas into my narrative are mine and not the fault of these authors. Sections 9, 11, and 12 are original contributions of my own. All figures have been taken from Report to the President.

Mark Rossow


Course Content
This course provides instruction in engineering ethics through a case study of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The course begins by presenting the minimum technical details needed to understand the physical cause of the Shuttle failure. The disaster itself is chronicled through NASA photographs. Next the decision-making process—especially the discussions occurring during the teleconference held on the evening before the launch—is described. Direct quotations from engineers interviewed after the disaster are frequently used to illustrate the ambiguities of the data and the pressures that the decision-makers faced in the period preceding the launch. The course culminates in an extended treatment of six ethical issues raised by Challenger. Purpose of Case Studies

Principles of engineering ethics are easy to formulate but sometimes hard to apply. Suppose, for example, that...
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