The Challenger Disaster: Conflicting Responsibilities at Morton Thiokol and NASA taken from William Shaw’s Business Ethics (3rd ed.) Belmont: Wadsworth Publishers.

| May 26, 2014

Under contract from NASA, Morton Thiokol Inc. designs and produces the rocket boosters used to launch the space shuttle. In January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, killing all seven astronauts aboard. It was the worst disaster in the history of the U.S. space program. Later analysis identified the cause of the explosion to be failure in the O-rings used to seal the rockets. Evidence shows that prior to the launch Morton Thiokol and NASA had been concerned about the O-ring reliability at low temperatures.

All large institutions confront difficulties when organizing decision making. In such institutions, two important factors often work at cross purposes: Large institutions develop a wealth of expert and valuable information, yet efficient decision can be hampered by too much information. Thus large institutions usually develop formal organizational structures that assign different responsibilities to different members such that when each member fulfills his or her role, an efficient and rational decision should result. Within such a structure each person has the responsibility of doing what his or her role requires, and nothing more.

Both Morton Thiokol and NASA were typical in this regard. At Morton Thiokol, engineers were responsible for designing and testing the rockets and conveying the relevant information to management. Acting on behalf of the corporation, management would use this information in ways that would advance the best interests of the firm. On this model, engineers provided expert and objective information and managers were responsible for incorporating this information into final decisions.

Various levels decisions were established, with checks and balances at each level. Likewise, NASA management was organized to protect the best interests of the space program, including the safety of its astronauts. In such complex organizational structures, there is seldom any one individual who is responsible for a decision, either in having the final say, or in being liable for the decision once it is made.

As it normally worked, Morton Thiokol management would accept the recommendations of their engineers and NASA would require contractors to rove ‘the safety and reliability of their products.. Just prior to the Challenger launch, it appears that both Morton Thiokol and NASA changed the normal decision-making routine.

For over a year prior to this launch, Thiokol engineers had been concerned about the reliability of the O-rings. One engineer who worked closely on the O-rings, Roger Boisjoly, had expressed reservations to management on numerous occasions. After an earlier shuttle flight one year before the Challenger launch, Boisjoly had found evidence of leakage around the O-rings. Boisjoly later testified that NASA officials had requested that he “soften” his position before presenting his data to a post-launch review board, Boisjoly did, and shuttle flights continued throughout 1985.

After again finding evidence of O-ring leaks in later flights, and believing that his earlier warnings were not being taken seriously, Boisjoly wrote a strongly worded memo to Thiokol management in July 1985. In that memo marked “company private” to ensure that it remained within the firm, Boisjoly said that he was writing ”to insure that management is fully aware of the seriousness of the current O-ring erosion problem.” If changes were not made he predicted, the result would be a catastrophe of the highest order-loss of human life. He concluded, “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action, then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities.” In response to this memo Thiokol formed an engineering task force to monitor the O-ring problem.

In the days leading up to the January 28 launch of the Challenger, Thiokol and NASA were in constant communication concerning the launch,. When the weather forecast for launch day showed unusually low temperatures, Thiokol management initially agreed with the recommendations of their engineers and recommended a postponement of the flight.

Normally, NASA would require contractors to prove the safety of their components before going ahead with a launch. However, NASA was under pressure from other sources, including third parties who had contracted to use the shuttle flight to stay on schedule,. It seems in this case that NASA shifted the burden of proof, requiring those with concerns about the O-rings to prove that the parts were at risk. Without such proof, NASA was inclined to proceed with the launch. Late on the evening before the launch, Thiokol management met to review their recommendation,. According to Boisjoly, those present were asked to “make a management decision” and an engineer present was asked to ”take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat.” The senior management then voted to change their recommendation and advise NASA to go forward with the launch, Again, according to Boisjoly, NASA accepted this recommendation with relief and ”without any probing discussion.” The next morning, moments after take-off, the Challenger exploded.

In the days following this tragedy management at both Thiokol and NASA denied knowledge of or responsibility for the cause of tine disaster. NASA officials discounted “speculation that cold weather might have been a factor,” and Thiokol management denied that investigators had focused on “ parts of the shuttle for which for which Morton Thiokol is responsible.” Even weeks later, when the evidence was strong that O-ring failure had caused the explosion, Thiokol declared that while this had not been proven, they were working on new designs for the seals.

A presidential commission, chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers, was formed to investigate this tragedy. Feeling a professional and personal responsibility, and especially in light of the reluctance of Thiokol and NASA management to be forthright in admitting what they knew, Roger Boisjoày agreed to testify before the Rogers Commission with a full disclosure of what he knew. Due in large measure to his testimony, the Rogers Commission concluded that O-ring failure was the cause of the shuttle disaster. Boisjoly later stated that Thiokol management expressed irritation over his decision to tell all. After testifying, his job responsibilities at Thiokol were downgraded and he was continuously isolated at work. After criticism by Rogers, Thiokol later assigned Boisjoly and another engineer to their original jobs. According to Boisjoly, the harassment continued at work until he was forced to take extended sick leave and long-term disability due to the stress and depression brought about by the entire episode.
After reading this case study you are asked to play the role of an ethical consultant to Roger Boisjoly, the engineer at Morton Thiokel, Inc. Your client has asked you to present to him in writing an overview of various ethical positions, in particular how consequentiality (utilitariaism) and deontological ethics would address his moral dilemma regarding whether or not to be a whistleblower,

You are asked to present how each position would view this situation along with the strengths and weaknesses of each theory, Please give particular examples relevant to this case to clarify the positive and negative aspects of each particular theory, You are asked to present your essay in the format of a formal memorandum addressed specifically to your client, Roger Boisjoly. You are not expected nor asked to solve the dilemma for your client, only to present his two options in an impartial, objective manner, Give no indication of your preference. It is important that your brief be logical and clearly presented.

In the case study you will be expected to argue the merits and demerits of an individual ethical decision from the respective of a given ethical theory.
you will critique a real life ethical dilemma from both a “Utilitarian” and a “Duty Ethics” approach.

The Guidelines for Case Studies are:

1. Briefly state the ethical issue at stake.

2. Indicate how an individual endorsing this particular ethical theory would address this ethical dilemma.

3. Discuss the essential aspects of this ethical theory.

4. Identify the implications and evaluate the strengths and weakness of this ethical theory as it relates to this particular case.

In your case studies it is expected that you make your presentation in an objective, non-bias manner and refrain from any personal comments or viewpoints. The purpose of this exercise is to assist you understand thoroughly the ethical theories treated in this course along with inherent strengths and weaknesses. Only in this manner can you fully appreciate how theories serve as the basis of our ethical decision making and

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