Archive for November, 2012

The 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster had a tremendous impact on our society. The nation watched in horror as the shuttle exploded only 74.6 seconds into the flight, killing all seven passengers aboard. Reeling from the disaster, the nation struggled to make sense of it. What could have caused this mission to go so terribly wrong? NASA, which for many years had been considered practically infallible, came under scrutiny, as did the engineers and managers who made the decision to launch. Investigations identified the cause of the explosion to be leaky O-rings, which malfunctioned as a result of the uncommonly cold temperature on launch day. It also came to light that NASA was aware that the cold temperature could affect the O-rings’ performance, but went ahead with the launch regardless. Today, the Challenger disaster is still used in engineering and science curricula throughout the country as a case study of ethics and the roles of management and communication in science.

The Challenger disaster has always struck a chord with me, perhaps because it hits somewhat close to home. My dad, a mechanical and aerospace engineer, worked for Thiokol, the company that made the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. While he did not begin working there until 1991, five years after the disaster, he worked with many of the engineers and managers involved in the decision to launch. Much of the discussion regarding the Challenger case revolves around the pressures that caused NASA to push for launch and that pushed Thiokol to reverse their initial recommendation to delay launch, but my dad sees a much more personal side to the case. As an engineer and as a colleague of the Thiokol engineers who were involved in the decision, it is easy for him to put himself in their shoes.

Based on information from previous missions, Thiokol was aware that there might be problems with the O-rings. An O-ring task force had been created and was in the process of examining them when they received the call from NASA the night before launch. When it became clear that the temperature at launch would be abnormally low for Florida, Allan McDonald, a Thiokol employee who was at Kennedy Space Center as Thiokol’s senior management representative, requested that the O-ring task force present their preliminary data on the O-rings. The engineers on the O-ring task force hurried to get together what data they had. Given only four hours to prepare, they quickly summarized and analyzed their data, made a decision, made up charts and graphs to support their decision and put together a presentation—without the modern-day conveniences of excel and PowerPoint. The task force gave Bob Lund, the VP of Engineering, their presentation and recommendations, and Lund agreed with their decision.

As preparations for the teleconference were made, numerous managers and executives filed into the Thiokol conference room. Their presence was an unusual occurrence, as generally only the engineers, Lund, and Joe Kilminster, the VP of Space Booster Programs, were present at such conferences. When the teleconference began, the engineers at Thiokol presented what data they had and, in the end, presented the recommendation that launch be delayed if the temperature was below 53°F. While recognizing that they were far from determining an actual temperature cut-off point, the engineers were convinced that cold temperatures would inhibit the proper performance of the O-rings. NASA managers were upset and began to put pressure on Thiokol. Kilminster asked for a five-minute caucus so that the Thiokol personnel could go over the data again. It was during this discussion that the presence of the executives came into play. Cal Wiggins, VP and General Manager of the Space Division and Jerry Mason, Senior VP of Wasatch Operations took over the discussion. The engineers reiterated their opinion, and yet, the two top executives, Mason and Wiggins, continued to push for launch. After a bewildering 30 minutes, the executives overturned the engineers’ decision, went back online, and gave the launch recommendation to NASA.

In presentations and papers my dad has written and in my conversations with him, he encourages us to think about how the engineers on the O-ring task force felt about the turn of events during that teleconference, both before and after the disaster occurred. As they left the office that evening, after they had rushed to put together their data and given what they felt to be the wisest recommendation, it is likely that they felt frustrated that their expert opinions had been ignored. Why had they bothered to work late, hurriedly preparing their best advice, if their expertise was not going to be utilized? They may have questioned the motives of the execs who overrode their decisions. NASA was their biggest client and bids for the next batch of shuttle boosters would be going in shortly. The engineers must have wondered whether those facts played a role in the execs’ decision. I wonder if they felt nervous or had a sense of foreboding as they drove home late that night. Perhaps each engineer replayed those thirty minutes in his head, coming up with arguments and the things he should have said, as I often do after a heated debate.
And how did those engineers feel when they heard that the Challenger had exploded, and later that it was the result of malfunctioning O-rings? I’d imagine they were filled with tremendous guilt, and that all those things they wished they had said still come back to haunt them. Had it been me, I think I would have resented the executives that disregarded my opinions. I would wonder if there was something I could have said that would have convinced the execs to delay launch, almost hoping that nothing I could have said would have changed their minds anyway. I’d have wondered why the executives were the ones making the decisions, when I was the one doing the research. I think I’d call into question my entire field, wondering if the expert opinion actually meant anything anymore, or if it was simply all a managerial game played only to make money.

In that thirty-minute caucus, the lives of those engineers were undoubtedly changed forever. My dad has since left the industry and is now a professor of engineering, and a question he poses to his current colleagues is this: How do we prepare future scientists and engineers for that thirty minutes? In this case, teaching ethics and morality do not seem to be enough. The engineers had made the ethical decision in suggesting a delayed launch, knowing that NASA would not likely be happy about putting off the mission yet again, as launch had already been delayed multiple times. In the spirit of “doing no harm,” they had made a conservative recommendation. And yet, making the moral choice was not enough. In the thirty-minute caucus, they had tried to reiterate to the executives that launch should be delayed, but the concerns they voiced fell on deaf ears, and the execs took control of the meeting. As a fairly quiet and reserved individual, I do not imagine I would have acted much differently than the engineers. The engineers were basically eliminated from the discussion, and I know that I would have been unable to interrupt and argue with my superiors. We need not only to teach futures scientists to be ethical, but also how to stand up for what is right, even against authority, when faced with those thirty minutes.

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