On January 28, 1986, NASA's Space Shuttle named Challenger burst into flames 73 seconds after takeoff, which led to the death of seven astronauts on board (Vaughan 2, Vaughan 3). Seven months later, a commission appointed by the president to establish the causes of the disaster determined that the principal cause was the failure of a seal in one of the solid rocket boosters. This inability to seal properly enabled hot combustion gases to leak from the side of the booster and combust through the external fuel tank (Boisjoly 4). Notably, the investigation attributed the failure of the seal to several factors such as the faulty design of the solid rocket boosters, insufficient low-temperature testing of the seal material and the joints that the O-ring sealed, and poor communication between various levels of NASA management. Moreover, Morton Thiokol (Vaughan 2), the contractor responsible for the seal design, had recommended against the launch because of the concerns about the performance of the seal, a recommendation that was reversed with fatal consequences.
Despite Morton Thiokols recommendation against the launch, NASA proceeded with the decision to launch the Challenger. Notably, NASA considered some values relevant to this ruling. First, meeting deadlines was a value relevant to NASA. Evidently, NASA wanted to launch the Challenger immediately to examine the Halleys Comet. In particular, launching it on time meant that the probe in the shuttle would have collected data several days before a similar Russian probe would be launched. Second, NASA considered the interest of efficiency in making this decision. Evidently, NASA needed to ensure Challenger could be in space during President Reagans State of the Union address (Vaughan 4). Moreover, the continuation of congress funding depended largely on the success of the launch.
However, NASA should not have considered these values because it bore the professional responsibility (Boisjoly 15) to ensure safety first for all its operations. In particular, NASA and the engineers had safety goals they needed to achieve. Moreover, the launch would only be efficient in delivering quality if NASA followed all its safety regulations. Nevertheless, NASA still allowed relativism moral perspective to guide its decision-making. In particular, the NASA managers argued that past launches were still successful and thus the officials construed data about O-ring charring in socially (Vaughan 10) unexpected ways and pressed the engineers to work under similar assumptions in declaring the Challenger flightworthy.
If I had been an ethics advisor to NASA during the launch of the Challenger, I would have encouraged NASA to delay the launch further until the Morton Thiokol engineers had rectified the seal that they had identified as a critical problem. Additionally, I would have reminded NASA that they had a value of professional responsibility to uphold in ensuring safety first in all its operations despite the immense pressure to maintain Congressional funding. Moreover, NASA had to synthesize all the available information and moral obligations efficiently and wait until the facts were examined before making a reasonable decision.
To conclude, the Challenger disaster teaches several moral lessons about conflict of value. First, it shows that schedule pressure should not outweigh mission safety because, in the effort to meet the deadlines, standards and faults are overlooked leading to tragedies and loss of life. Second, there is a need for proper and clear communication to ensure safe and fruitful projects because clear communication participants speak up and offer their professional opinion, which is part of their professional responsibility and accountability. Finally, this disaster teaches that it is important to maintain a non-intimidating managerial environment, which ensures that parties are not afraid to ask questions and challenge assumptions.
Boisjoly, Roger. "Ethical DecisionsMorton Thiokol and the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster: Telecon Meeting." onlineethics. org. Retrieved on (2007): 04-24.
Vaughan, Diane. "Autonomy, interdependence, and social control: NASA and the space shuttle Challenger." Administrative Science Quarterly (1990): 225-257.
Vaughan, Diane. "Regulating risk: Implications of the Challenger accident." Law & Policy 11.3 (1989): 330-349.
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