The Challenger Explosion:
Bus Gov Soc
November 11th, 2012
On January 28th, 1986, families across The United States of America witnessed a public tragedy which took the lives of six astronauts and a school teacher. The Challenger launch, broadcast live on television, was an important and well publicized event. Americans all over the country anxiously sat in front of the television to watch this historic moment, only to find themselves horrified as they observed this incredible tragedy in its place. The shuttle exploded seventy-three seconds after launch, taking the lives of the entire crew and sending the 3 billion dollars worth of machinery plummeting back to Earth (Kosmos Business). After careful review, engineers discovered the exact cause of the explosion and the American public demanded an explanation. President Ronald Reagan organized an independent commission to create a “Report to the President” to determine all direct and indirect causes of the events that took place on January 28th. The Rogers Commission investigated the tragedy and generated suggestions for the improvement of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) program. The commission determined that the explosion was caused by an O-ring failure, at the technical level, and miscommunication, at the management level. The resulting deaths of the seven crew members onboard are forever seared into American history as another tragic event that could have been avoided.
In the early 1980’s federal funding for the NASA program was in jeopardy. Due to this, NASA created an inexpensive, reusable space shuttle. This reusable space ship gained most of its thrust power from two Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs). Two minutes after liftoff, when the SRBs exhaust all of their fuel, they detach from the spacecraft and fall back to Earth donning parachutes. The SRBs are then repaired and used again in future shuttle launches. Morton-Thiokol Inc, often referred to simply as Thiokol, designed and constructed the SRB’s for NASA (CED)
(Image depicting the shuttle attached to the SRBs courtesy of CED)
(SRB component pieces courtesy of CED)
These thrusters generate enormous power, and employ over 143,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and 383,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen for combustion. At each joint in the SRBs, a seal must be used to prevent the explosive gasses from escaping the container and damaging the rest of the spacecraft. The seal is created by using a technology called “pressure-actuated sealing” which incorporates a primary and secondary O-ring. In low temperatures, these O-rings are prone to expand at a slower rate. When this occurs, some of the gasses are able to escape the tank before the seal is fully functional. This process can damage or even completely destroy the primary O-ring, as well as the secondary O-ring (CED). On January 28th, 1986, the Challenger was launched on a cold 36° day and exploded shortly after liftoff due to explosive gasses leaking out of the right SRB tank.
(Image depicting O-ring position courtesy of CED)
In 1973, when Thiokol first acquired the NASA contract to design and produce these SRBs, the O-ring seal engineers experienced some problems. After various modifications and alterations, the O-rings seemed to be performing properly, but then experienced more problems during heavy load testing. The rings experienced small gas leaks, ring charring, ring erosion, and loss of O-ring resilience at low temperatures. Engineers at Thiokol and the Marshall Space Flight Center, the NASA group in charge of space shuttle launches and the only department in constant contact with Thiokol, were aware of these issues. In 1985, Roger Boisjoly, a Thiokol engineer, sent a memo titled, “O-ring erosion/Potential Failure Criticality” to vice president Robert Lund (Report to the President). In this memo, Boisjoly frankly stated his beliefs by writing, “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to dedicate a team to solve the problem, with the field joint having the number one priority, then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities.” The engineers at Thiokol implemented an initiative to improve the O-rings so much so as to eliminate the problems experienced thus far. Until The Challenger explosion, the O-ring malfunctions had never caused any serious damage in real-world uses. This program was expected to yield results in two years time (CED). Unfortunately, when the Challenger lifted off only one year later, the O-ring issues had not yet been resolved.
Certain external and internal pressures forced Thiokol and NASA to recommend a launch even though there was a real threat of looming disaster. Federal funding for the space program was reduced, and further cuts were expected if the shuttle program was unsuccessful. Congress had even considered reallocating the funds meant for the development of space venturing vehicles to the Air Force instead of NASA. The success of the shuttle mission was vital to the overall health of NASA and its continued existence. Due to these budget cuts, The Challenger shuttle itself was created by using the most inexpensive materials possible, and designed to be reused many times (Seton Hall).
While budget cuts from congress limited NASA’s research and development power, political pressures urged the agency to continue with their mission objectives. The Reagan administration developed specific and overly ambitious goals for NASA. The government wanted to utilize the shuttle for commercial and military purposes as soon as possible. NASA implemented an equally ambitious launch schedule, with over 700 flights planned between 1978 and 1990. The space shuttle program was also very popular with the public, and President Reagan wanted to use this media attention as a publicity event. The President’s state of the union address was set to occur the evening of January 28th, 1985, six days after the original Challenger launch date. The launch date was delayed five times due to inclement weather, and was finally set to occur on January 28th, the same day as President Reagan’s speech (Kosmos Business). The white house strongly urged NASA to launch the shuttle before the state of the union address so that the president could refer to the successful launch and perhaps even make a live transmission to the spaceship during the speech (CED). This media attention would have dramatically aided NASA in securing future funds, however; this political pressure may have influenced the managers at Thiokol and NASA into make an irrational decision.
In the days leading up to January 28th, Thiokol engineers began expressing concerns about O-ring performance in cold weather situations. On the night of January 27th, only fifteen hours before the launch, thirty-four managers and engineers from Thiokol and the Marshall Space Flight Center at NASA held a teleconference. During this conversation, Thiokol engineers explained to NASA that O-ring usage was untested below 53°. They claimed that a launch during colder weather could potentially cause the seal to fail which might result in damage to the shuttle. When the O-rings were used on a space ship in 53° weather, there was significant damage to the O-ring and a small amount of leaked gas (CED). During the teleconference, Thiokol president Joe Kilminster expressed his company’s stance that they could not recommend a launch if the temperature was less than 53°. Managers at Marshall challenged Thiokol’s stance and pressured the company to give the launch a green light. Mulloy, a manager at Marshall, was upset by Thiokol’s views and said, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?” (Report to the President) Kilminster requested an offline meeting with his managers at Thiokol before resuming the conversation. During this brief hiatus, Kilminster met only with the upper managers at Thiokol, and did not allow engineers or specialists into the meeting with the exception of Robert Lund, the vice president and head engineer. During this meeting, Kilminster and Mason agreed with the Marshall Space Flight Center’s suggestion to go ahead with the launch. The four managers present voted on the issue. Lund, who originally received the email warning of the dangers of O-ring failures in 1984, hesitated. Before he could make a decision, Mason told Lund to, “Take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat.” Lund conformed with the group and voted in favor of launching. Shortly afterwards, the teleconference continued and Kilminster told Marshall that Thiokol was now in favor of launching (CED). The managers at Marshall never escalated Thiokol’s original concerns to the senior managers at NASA, and instead advocated the launch. The next day, the shuttle exploded.
Thiokol, in constant competition with other engineering firms, relied heavily on the NASA contract. With the budget cuts, NASA considered switching firms to one of Thiokol’s competitors to save money. The Thiokol managers were aware of this threat, and did everything in their power to keep NASA satisfied (Seton Hall). This external pressure may have influenced the managers’ change of heart. Since the engineers were not present in the offline meeting, there was no voice to serve as the minority opinion.
Engineers, as professionals, arguably have a different set of duties than managers. Deontologists, described by Trevino and Nelson in “Managing Business Ethics,” as those who “base their decisions about what’s right on broad, abstract ethical principles or values such as honesty, promise keeping, fairness, loyalty, rights, justice responsibility, compassion, and respect for human beings and property” would argue that engineers have a duty to the consumers of their products to make absolutely certain that no harm will come to them. The products that engineers create have the potential to cause serious harm and could even prove to be fatal to the people that use them. This obligation to conduct due diligence should have played a more critical role in the engineers’ actions. But just how far should an individual go in an attempt to prevent a disaster that was not even a certainty? As an engineer at Thiokol, is it worth risking your job to call NASA and express concerns when the results are uncertain and the data is limited? It is arguable from an individual’s standpoint that not enough information was present in order to warrant such a risk, but from a purely deontological standpoint, the engineers should have stood stronger to do the right thing.
The managers at both Thiokol and NASA were more inclined to take risks in this case than the engineers that had technical experience. The managers’ mission differed from that of the engineers in that the engineers sought to allow launch only in optimal conditions for their machinery, whereas the managers were simply trying to make sure the agency ran smoothly with limited delays. This is not to say that the managers took this enormous risk knowing that it might result in the deaths of the seven crew members onboard solely for the sake of timeliness, but rather that they were removed from the technical processes and did not completely understand the nature of the machinery. From the managers’ standpoint, it would not make sense to take such a risky gamble if they had known the possible outcomes because a shuttle explosion would harm the agency much more than a successful launch would benefit it in the long run. Regardless, the type of risk taking is unacceptable, and the managers, who were essentially in control of the lives of others, should have been held to a higher standard.
When scientists conduct an experiment involving human beings as subjects, informed consent is an important prerequisite. This space shuttle mission has all of the making of a science experiment, although clearly differing in some ways. Informed consent consists of two parts. Firstly, it requires that the subjects, “agree freely and without coercion to participate in the experiment,” and that they, “have been provided all the information needed and in an understandable form to allow them to make a reasonable decision whether or not to participate in the experiment.” (CED) While the first part of the definition seems to have been met, the second part may not have been. Thiokol has the ethical responsibility, as an organization made of professional engineers, to warn its consumers if any dangers are present. Even though in the end Thiokol signed off on the launch, they expressed their concerns accordingly to NASA. With this being said, should the Marshall Space Flight Center, after be advised on the possible O-ring failure, have conveyed this issue to the astronauts that were to board The Challenger the next day? On the day of the launch, NASA informed the astronauts that there was ice on the launch pad which could lead to somewhat dangerous conditions, but never mentioned anything about O-ring performance in the freezing weather (CED). The managers at NASA and Thiokol were responsible for the lives of the astronauts onboard the challenger. Since they decided to risk the lives of the crew members in the cold weather conditions, they should have at least warned them about the possibility of a catastrophic event and given the astronauts the opportunity to drop out of the mission.
Today, NASA is known as a prestigious organization employing only the most intelligent and innovative minds. Assuming this was the case in the 1980’s, it’s hard to comprehend how a catastrophe like the Challenger explosion could have occurred. The direct cause of the explosion, O-ring malfunction, only transpired because of the managers’ decision to take a risk. The managers made their choices based on the pressure they were experiencing from Congress and the President. Since Thiokol depended heavily on their NASA contract, the senior managers essentially submitted to the managers at the Marshall Space Flight Center even though the situation was known to be dangerous. Across the board, the engineers and managers involved in the development of the SRBs and The Challenger launch did not perform their ethical responsibilities meant to protect the astronauts onboard the shuttle. Due to these ethical violations, seven of America’s heroes never made it home.
In honor of the heroes who lost their lives. (Photo courtesy of NASA)
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