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E – 1896 Engineering Ethics: “Hold Safety Paramount” to Prevent Loss of Life, and the Case of Challenger Shuttle Disaster

Intended Audience: All Engineers
Credits: 2 PDH Units

1 STUDENTS ENROLLED

Engineers routinely create safe and economical products using government-mandated standard codes and specifications to design engineered structures, machines, and systems. However, in relatively rare but tragic cases, the structures and machines designed by engineers have failed, resulting in death and injuries to the unsuspecting public. Why do such failures occur even after following the governing design and construction codes and standards? In most of these failure cases, if not in all of them, the cause is the violations of the Code of Ethics, especially its first canon that states: engineers should “Hold Safety Paramount.” In most cases of catastrophic failures due to violating the Code of Ethics for Engineers, the individual engineer in charge has been the violator. However, in the case of the shuttle Challenger disaster, the lead engineers Allan J. McDonald and Roger Boisjoly  performed ethically and strongly opposed the launch on that unusually very cold morning in Florida. They were concerned that the O-rings of the rocket booster field joints would not be flexible enough under such a cold environment to seal the field joints, which is what happened and led to the tragic explosion. However, despite the efforts of the engineers in charge, the top management at NASA and Morton Thiokol (the contractor for shuttle solid rocket boosters) decided to ignore the concerns and go ahead with the launch.

This Course first presents a summary of the Code of Ethics for Engineers focusing on safety-related provisions, followed by a discussion of how engineers and managers can work together to hold safety paramount in every step of the project. Then, a summary of the engineering aspects of the space shuttle and its design will be presented, followed by the sequence of events leading to the disaster and the specific cause of the Challenger explosion. The Course will conclude with a discussion of the ethical responsibility of the individual engineers versus the institutional/corporate managers’ commitment to “Holding Safety Paramount” to prevent loss of life. A Q/A, and comments section will end the webinar.

References and Recommended Further Readings:

  1. Code of Ethics, National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE).
  2. NSPE Ethics Guide, National Society of Professional Engineers.
  3. ASME “Code of Ethics of Engineers,” American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
  4. AICHE” Code of Ethics, American Institute of Chemical Engineers,
  5. Ethics, Technology, and Engineering, a book by Ibo van de Poel and Lambèr Royakkers, Wily-Blackwell, 2011.
  6. Concepts and Cases-Engineering Ethics, a book by Charles E. Harris et al., published by Cengage, 2019.
  7. Launius, R.D. and Gillette, A.K. (1992) “Toward a History of the Space Shuttle-An Annotated Bibliography-Part 1″, NASA History Office, NASA, Washington, D.C.
  8. Goodrich, M.K., Buchalter, A.R., and Miller, P.M. (2012). “Toward a History of the Space Shuttle-An Annotated Bibliography-Part 2-1992-2011”,  Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  9. Post, S.C., (2014) “Space Shuttle Case Studies: Challenger and Columbia,” 121st ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, IN.
  10. Hoover, K. & Fowler, W.T. (2006) “Studies in Ethics, Safety, and Liability for Engineers: Space Shuttle Challenger.” The University of Texas at Austin and Texas Space Grant Consortium.
  11. Post Heppenheimer, T.A. (2002) “Space Shuttle Decision, 1965-1972 (History of the Space Shuttle, Volume 1)”, Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.
  12. NASA – Space Shuttle Overview: Challenger (OV-099)”.
  13. Shuttle Orbiter Challenger (OV-099)”. NASA/KSC.
  14. Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (1986). Available at http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/missions/51-l/docs/rogers-commission/table-of-contents.html or http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/51lcover.htm
  15. “H.J.Res.634 – 99th Congress (1985–1986): A joint resolution debarring Morton Thiokol Inc. from contracting and subcontracting with NASA until a determination is made by the Comptroller General with respect to actions which were allegedly taken by such corporation against its employees because they gave certain information to the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident”. Congress.gov. May 14, 1986. Retrieved March 11, 2021.
  16. Augustine Report – Report of the Advisory Committee On the Future of the U.S. Space Program. December 1990.
  17. Boisjoly, Russell P.; Curtis, Ellen Foster; Mellican, Eugene (April 1989). “Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger Disaster: The Ethical Dimensions“. Journal of Business Ethics. 8 (4): 217–230. doi:10.1007/BF00383335. ISSN 0167-4544. JSTOR 25071892. S2CID 144135586
  18. Allan J. McDonald (1937-2021) Wikipedia Page.
  19. Roger M. Boisjoly (pronounced BOH-zhe-LAY) 1938-2012) Wikipedia Page.
  20. McDonald, Allan J.; Hansen, James R. (2009). Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0-813-03326-6.
  21. Engineer who opposed Challenger launch offers personal look at tragedy. NASA. October 5, 2012. Retrieved March 8, 2012.
  22. Harris, Hugh (2014). Challenger: An American Tragedy: The Inside Story from Launch Control. Open Road Media. ISBN 9781480413504
  23. Berkes, Howard (March 7, 2021). “Remembering Allan McDonald: he refused to approve Challenger launch, exposed cover-up“. NPR. Retrieved March 8, 2021.
  24. Mims, R. (September 3, 1988). “JUDGE DISMISSES LAWSUITS AGAINST MAKER OF SHUTTLE
  25. Ware, Doug G. (January 28, 2016). “Engineer who warned of 1986 Challenger disaster still racked with guilt, three decades on”United Press International.
  26. Eckholm, Erik (February 26, 1986). “Man in the news; tenacious engineer: Allan J. McDonald”. The New York Times. Retrieved March 8, 2021.
  27. Remembering Roger Boisjoly: He Tried To Stop Shuttle Challenger Launch (February 6, 2012) by Howard Berkes, NPR.
  28. Roger Boisjoly at MIT 1989 – Engineering Ethics: Constructive Responses to Difficult Situations, MIT Video.
  29. Allan J. McDonald Interview on “Ethics Case Study No. 1: Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, ASCE Video, United Engineering Foundation.
  30. Challenger: A Rush to Launch, az video on the Internet by WJXT Films.
  31. Trentelman, Charles F. (January 28, 2011). “Two men fought to prevent launch”. Standard-Examiner. Ogden, Utah. Retrieved March 9, 2021.

Learning Objectives:

At the successful conclusion of this course, you will learn the following knowledge and skills:

  • Why “holding safety, health, and well-being” of the public is so crucial in preventing disasters.
  • What does “holding safety paramount” mean.
  • How not holding “safety paramount” was the main cause of the tragic explosion of the Shuttle Challenger during its lunch.
  • What are the “legal” and “ethical” responsibilities of engineers to “hold safety paramount.”
  • How engineers can convince managers to also “hold safety paramount.”
  • How space shuttle Challenger disaster could have been prevented if the managers considered “safety” to be of paramount importance.
  • How “group think” can blind engineers and managers to “hold safety paramount.”
  • How “willful or intentional blindness” of engineers and managers can create safety-related disasters
  • How can whistleblowing prevent engineering disasters, and what were the personal and professional costs of whistleblowing for Roger Boisjoly for bringing up the problems of the O-rings six months before the Challenger catastrophe?
  • The important concept of “preventive ethics” proposed by Charles E. Harris Jr. in 1995.

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