Sep 1, 2013
In June ASCE presented an ethics seminar for engineering students at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. Sponsored by a grant from the United Engineering Foundation and benefiting from a generous contribution and support from the university's College of Engineering, the seminar featured presentations by panelists who were involved in some of engineering's most notable ethics cases. One panelist, Allan J. McDonald, was the program manager of the solid-fuel rocket motor project for Morton Thiokol, Inc., at the time of the Challenger accident. His experiences in the decision to launch Challenger on January 28, 1986-a decision that resulted in the loss of the spacecraft and its seven-person crew-highlight the role of professional ethics in management practices and corporate culture.
The significant growth of aerospace initiatives in exploration and defense during the administration of President Ronald Reagan had proved to be a financial boon for the Utah-based firm Morton Thiokol, Inc. (MTI). The company had benefited from exclusive contracts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and its prospects grew in 1982, when it became the sole provider of solid-fuel rocket motors for NASA's space shuttle program. In view of forecasts of shuttle missions by NASA that projected as many as two trips per month by 1988, MTI seemed to have every reason to believe that its aerospace division would continue to be the major source of its corporate revenue.
Yet it was not long before this lucrative business gave rise to significant market challenges. In 1983 Hercules, Inc., one of MTI's largest competitors, raised objections to MTI's status as a sole provider. Hercules was aided in its efforts to force competitive production by Senator Edwin "Jake" Garn (R-Utah), then one of NASA's biggest supporters on Capitol Hill. In the face of external pressure, NASA began soliciting information from others within the industry to determine whether other parties could offer competitive pricing for the solid-fuel rocket motors.
MTI's strongest argument against a second source of solid-fuel rocket boosters was that its size and breadth of operations yielded greater efficiencies in the production process and that the comparatively limited operations of its competitors would make them incapable of matching its costs. In support of this argument, MTI began investing heavily in upgrading its production facilities, hoping to demonstrate that it could fully meet NASA's demand for solid-fuel rocket motors, even at the aggressive pace of 24 launches per year.
Set against the backdrop of these contractual maneuverings were the first indications of trouble with MTI's solid-fuel rocket booster design. A postflight safety analysis of a 1983 Challenger mission revealed that a metal nozzle in the booster had experienced significant erosion that left it mere seconds from a potentially disastrous rupture. A subsequent launch was delayed while MTI scrambled to replace the defective nozzles, straining its relations with NASA. And shortly thereafter came reports of a second erosion problem, this one involving the O-rings used to seal the rocket joints. This problem seemed to be more pronounced in missions launched at lower temperatures.
In late 1985 MTI was surprised when NASA announced that while its own assessment confirmed that there was no other economically comparable source for the solid-fuel rocket motors, the agency was still considering a second source for reasons of "national security." At the same time NASA delayed considering a related contract proposal from MTI, leading MTI management to fear that NASA was looking to use the unsigned contract as leverage in negotiating a non-sole-source agreement for the rocket boosters. On top of this, Lawrence Malloy, NASA's manager of the solid-fuel rocket booster project, informed MTI that he wished to discuss plans for transferring postflight disassembly to one of MTI's competitors, a firm headed by a friend of Malloy's. This news only served to heighten MTI's concerns that NASA was whittling away at their business arrangements.
The events immediately preceding the Challenger accident have been discussed in considerable detail elsewhere (see "The Importance of Engineering Ethics," Civil Engineering, August 2011, pages 42-43), and the facts may be summarized as follows: With reports of subfreezing temperatures leading up to the launch, MTI engineers recommended postponing the flight because of concerns that the O-rings might fail, leading to a catastrophic eruption of gases. MTI relayed this recommendation to NASA project leaders, and the latter, who themselves were feeling pressure because of previous launch delays and the unusual media attention arising from the inclusion for the first time ever of a civilian crew member, objected vehemently to what they deemed to be a recommendation based on "inconclusive" data. Faced with the prospect of angering the firm's biggest client, MTI's senior management overrode their engineers' objections and issued a recommendation to proceed. Seventy-two seconds into launch, the MTI engineers' concerns tragically proved to be well founded; hot gas from the solid-fuel rocket boosters burned through the O-rings and ignited Challenger's rocket fuel, causing the shuttle to explode.
What ethical lessons can be drawn from the actions of MTI's senior management leading up to the launch?
Canon 1 of ASCE's Code of Ethics reads as follows: "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public...in the performance of their professional duties." Category (a) in the guidelines to practice for this canon drives the point home: "Engineers shall recognize that the lives, safety, health, and welfare of the general public are dependent upon engineering judgments, decisions, and practices incorporated into structures, machines, products, processes, and devices."
While MTI's role in the Challenger disaster demonstrates the types of business and economic pressures that can arise when unwelcome recommendations are made to clients, it also serves as a reminder that holding the public welfare paramount means that not only engineering professionals but also managers and corporate cultures must be wholly committed to safety.
Speaking to the students at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo as a member of the technical team whose advice was overruled prior to Challenger's launch, Allan J. McDonald outlined several lessons. Although many of his recommendations deal more with engineering practice than with ethics per se, they establish a framework for ethical decision making when business pressures challenge a professional's commitment to safeguarding the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
First, it is important for managers to understand the limitations of a product and the validity of technical specifications. It is also crucial to study past problems and anomalies and to create a corporate memory of those challenges through a tangible record or database of lessons learned. In the case of Challenger, MTI managers disregarded numerous red flags relating to low-temperature launches because the data were ambiguous or it was not clear how the data were to be interpreted. While perfect knowledge with respect to a technical matter may never be possible, it goes without saying that it is easier for decision makers to choose an ethical course of action when the risks of failing to do so are both specific and well documented.
Next, a corporate culture of safety requires a nonintimidating managerial environment, one that encourages staff members to ask questions and offer opinions and that fosters open communication. Such an environment ensures that everyone in the leadership chain has the information he or she needs to make the right call. In the case of Challenger, this communication failure was particularly evident in NASA's team, and those with final authority over launch decisions were not advised of the concerns raised by MTI's engineers.
Above all, even at the cost of damaging relations with an important client, corporate leaders must recognize that they have an ethical obligation to those whose lives and well-being depend on the exercise of sound engineering decisions and practices. Corporate decision makers should never ask technical staff members to prove that a project will fail; rather, they must expect proof that a project is safe. While schedule pressures, financial matters, and other considerations often factor into managerial decisions, it is essential for professionals holding leadership positions to recognize that these issues cannot be allowed to undermine their commitment to hold paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
For an interesting and informative look at the Challenger tragedy and the subsequent investigation, readers are directed to Allan J. McDonald and Joseph R. Hansen's book
Truth, Lies, and O-rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
(Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009).
Tara Hoke is ASCE's assistant general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.
Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE's hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case, that some details may have been altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.