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On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart after 73 seconds of flight due to an O-ring seal failure in the right solid rocket booster. This failure caused a series of events that eventually led to the shuttle breaking up and killing the astronauts onboard.

Ethical DilemmaEdit

The solid rocket booster problem was rooted in a design flaw that NASA and their contractor, Morton Thiokol, failed to address. The engineers at Morton Thiokol expressed concerns about the launch, as the predicted low temperatures would affect the O-Ring’s ability to seal properly. However, due to NASA’s ambitious launch schedule, the program managers were appalled at the thought of delaying the launch. One manager from NASA remarked, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April? [1]” The supervising engineer was told by management “to take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat [1].” This statement by management promoted poor ethical decision making.

Engineers have a duty to report to an appropriate authority of the potential risks when a client/employer fails to follow the engineering recommendations. This duty involves risking their reputation and career. Roger Boisjoly became the whistleblower for the prelaunch decisions and was ostracized by employees and managers at Morton Thiokol. He later won an award for his honesty and integrity and became a speaker on workplace ethics.

The Importance of Ethical Management

The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster is a prime example of how poor management decisions can lead to devastating results. Morton-Thiokol was known to have a corporate culture where upsetting the client would not be tolerated. The engineering management knew that a recommendation to delay the shuttle would disappoint their client (NASA) upsetting the upper management and potentially losing the contract with NASA . However, the engineering management made the ethical decision of expressing their concerns to NASA regarding the O-Ring's ability to properly seal at low temperatures. It was not until Joe Kilminster (vice president of Morton-Thiokol) intervened that the engineering management unexpectedly decided to change their decision and approve the launch (overruling Boisjoly). It is believed that this strict management style at Morton-Thiokol impacted the decision of the engineering management as it only rewarded employees for pleasing the customers, but did not reward employees for placing safety and ethics above all else. [2] [3] [4]

            It was also found that both Morton-Thiokol and NASA had changed their management philosophies due to the political and financial pressure they were under. When management learned that the engineers could not prove why the O-ring would fail at low temperatures, they followed the philosophy that the shuttle should "launch unless engineers can prove it unsafe to do so". This is a very dangerous and unethical management style that contradicts the proper philosophy of launching the shuttle "only when engineers can prove it is safe to do so". [3]

The Columbia DisasterEdit

Despite the changes that the Challenger’s investigation board implemented, NASA would see another space shuttle disaster with Columbia on STS-107 in 2003. Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry over Palestine, Texas after being damaged from falling foam debris at launch.[5] NASA had known about the debris strike after launch, but did not act as foam striking the orbiter was nothing new; it had happened many times before without consequence.[6] In this case, NASA incorrectly assumed the risk was not worth doing anything about, and in any case, there was little that could be done.[6] When the shuttle then disintegrated on re-entry, President Bush created a second committee to study the cause of the accident. The committee concluded that the positioning of the shuttle next to the fuel tank and solid rocket boosters were a design flaw of the entire system, and that there was no way to guarantee that a similar accident could happen again.[6][7] This was a major blow to the space shuttle program, as the public had deemed the risk to the astronauts as unacceptable and the space shuttle was subsequently retired 7 years later.[7] This second example shows a true case of how engineers need the public support and trust in order to function and what happens when they lose the public support. Also, while it would be a stretch to call the engineers here negligent, as the space program is new, largely untested technology, it reminds engineers about how the public perceives engineering concepts such as risk assessment, and ultimately why engineers owe a duty of respect and care to both the public (or the astronauts in this case) and the profession of engineering itself.


[1] Report to the President by the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger
Accident (1986). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

[2]  Discuss the inevitability of the Challenger disaster and how it could have been avoided  accessed February 8, 2013 from,d.aWc

[3] Gordon C. Andrews, Canadian Professional Engineering and GeoScience Practice and Ethics (Canada: Nelson Education Ltd, 2009), 260-261

[4] Tenbrunsel A. E. and Bazerman M. H, Launching into Unethical Behaviour accessed February 8 2013 from

[5] Smith, Matt. “NASA, Texas towns mark Columbia disaster”. Cable News Network. February 1, 2013. Retrieved March 6, 2013

[6] Gehman, Harold. “Report of Columbia Accident Investigation Board”. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. August 26, 2003. Retrieved March 6, 2013

[7] Chow, Denise. “Shuttle Workers Face Big Layoffs as NASA Fleet Retires” July 22, 2011. Retrieved March 6, 2013

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