C hallenger and Columbia disasters from
a n Engineering Ethics standpoint
Very widely-used case studies in engineering ethics are the two failures of the space shuttles Challenger in 1986 during its liftoff and Columbia in 2003 during its reentry into the Earth’s orbit. What is interesting about the two space shuttle failures is that they had similar circumstances in them. Engineers recognized technical issues that might lead to the failures and communicated serious safety concerns in the two missions to their managers, and then managers outweighed engineers’ concerns and placed their management concerns above the safety concerns because engineers didn’t have conclusive data.
R eview of the space shuttle failures from an ethical perspective: The case of Challenger:
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded seventy-four seconds after launching. All the seven crew members lost their lives. Investigations showed that the catastrophe was due to a critical failure in the O-ring seals of the right Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) that prevents the leakage of hot gases from it. As a matter of fact, and since the start of NASA’s Space Transportation System (STS), Morton Thiokol’s, the manufacturer of SRBs, engineers knew that there was a flaw in the design of the O-rings used in SRBs. (Boisjoly, 1987) According to Boisjoly, a mechanical engineer employed by Morton Thiokol, engineers found a severe O-ring damage in a joint of SRB during post-flight inspection in 1985. After investigating the issue, he suggested that low temperatures during the liftoff lengthened the period needed by O-rings to move from their groove. Boisjoly informed a senior manager in Morton Thiokol that a new design was needed for the O-rings; otherwise there would be a risk for a disaster during any planned launches with O-rings of the old design. As the program proceeded, NASA encountered many delays and difficulties. Also, the congress was becoming increasingly unhappy from the shuttle project and NASA’s performance. This raised concerns in NASA about the continued budget support to the shuttle project; this motivated NASA to plan a record number of launches for 1986 to convey the congress a message that a progress in the project is being made. Also, upon the fast progress of the European Space Agency project of developing cheaper space missions, NASA had to prove that the US was still leading in the field of Space Exploration.
Several delays for the launching of Challenger took place in January 1986 due to low temperatures and mechanical problems many times, and because the president Reagen wasn’t present for launching when the temperature stalled one time. Also, the White House intervened so that Challenger launch occurs before the President’s State of the Union address scheduled on January 28th so that the President could refer to the liftoff, and maybe to have a live conversation with Challenger’s astronauts during the address. Under all this political pressure, NASA managers had to make publicrelations success, so these insisted on a launch on January 28th, holding paramount the shuttle program’s continued economic viability. Giving in under all the pressures made and insight of the technical risk of launching raised (to be discussed later), NASA’s management violated the most principle Professional Ethics canon of holding the public safety as their primary concern. Managers didn’t obey the canons of management professional ethics of “sound judgment” and
“communication, understanding and cooperation with employees at all levels”; they were informed about the hazard lying behind the launch at low temperatures; however they acted in recklessness and irresponsibility with the issue. Thiokol engineers were very concerned about the O-ring’s failure observed in the coldest previous launch, especially that colder and worse weather conditions were expected at the day of planned launching of Challenger. Thiokol Vice President...
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