Space Shuttle Ethics Case Study

1098 words - 4 pages

One of the greatest tragedies in history occurred on January 8, 1986. Shortly after it was launched, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher chosen to be the first teacher in space (“Challenger Disaster, n.d.). The explosion was caused by a failure of the O-rings of the solid rocket boosters. The O-rings were unable to seat properly, causing the leaking of hot combustion gases, which burnt through the external fuel tank. The malfunction was not any one person’s or organization’s fault; it was caused by many factors including the decision to launch despite the cold weather, the poor communication between management levels of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the readiness of NASA management to launch the shuttlecraft (“Engineering Ethics,” n.d.).
Alan McDonald, an employee of Morton-Thiokol and director of the project to build the solid rocket boosters, urged NASA management not to launch Challenger at the planned time after the company management wrote a recommendation to launch. In spite of his pleas, NASA made the decision to continue with the scheduled date, even though the predicted temperature was not within operational requirement (“Engineering Ethics,” n.d.). This decision, according to the National Society of Professional Engineers Code I.1, engineers shall “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” (“Code of Ethics,” n.d.). By electing to perform the launch under subpar conditions, they directly endangered the lives of the seven astronauts who were to be aboard the Challenger. Results of this decision played out in the worst possible scenario: all seven disastrously lost their lives.
Additionally, the information about unsafe temperatures for the launch did not reach the upper levels of NASA management. The material was kept at the lowers levels of the decision making process (“The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster,” n.d.). This infringes upon NSPE Code II.3.1. It states, “Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony. They shall include all relevant and pertinent information in such reports, statements, or testimony, which should bear the date indicating when it was current” (“Code of Ethics,” n.d.). The information regarding the hazardous temperatures was applicable to the arrangement of the launch, and it was not reported to levels I or II at NASA management (“The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster,” n.d.).
Also, NASA was eager to launch Challenger. The agency was fervent to launch the shuttlecraft so the launch pad could be renovated before the next mission, which was to launch a probe to observe Halley’s Comet to accumulate data a few days before Russia launched a similar probe (“Engineering Ethics,” n.d.). In addition, the Reagan administration set out incredibly ambitious goals for NASA, as well as other forms of pressure (“The Space Shuttle Challenger...

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