Challenger Essay, Research Paper
On January 26, 1986, one of
the greatest disasters of our time occurred. When Challenger was destroyed
many questions were asked about the safety of space missions. Many questions
were asked about the credibility of the engineers who designed the air craft.
It is now know that crucial information about the faulty O-rings was know
to many if not all of the engineers. These engineers had many moral decisions
they had to face when the problem was first noticed, which was as early as
When a shuttle is launched their are two booster rockets attached
to the side of it that disconnect when the shuttle gets into orbit. The rockets
that were on the Challenger were manufactured by Morton-Thiokol, an engineering
company. This company then sends the rockets to the launch site where they
are assembled. Where the different pieces of the rocket fit together, there
is a set of O-rings that make a seal around the booster. Around the O-rings
their is a putty substance that holds the O-rings in place. In November of
1981, after the flight of the second shuttle mission, the joints where examined,
and the O-rings were eroded.
The joints were still sealing effectively but
the O-ring material was decaying because of hot gasses that went through the
putty. At this point Roger Boisjoly an engineer for Morton-Thiokol started
researching different types of putty to reduce the corrosion on the O-rings.
After testing the O-rings in the laboratory it was found that they did not
return to their original size after being compressed at low temperatures.
Thiokol designed a set of billets that would hold the joint more firmly in
place. These billets were not ready on the day of the Challenger disaster
because they took too long to manufacture, and NASA did not want to delay the
The next tests took place in June of 1985 at Morton-Thiokol in
Utah. The primary seal on flight 51B which flew on April 29, 1985, was eroded;
"eroded in 3 places over a 1.3 inch length up to a maximum depth of.171 inches.
It was postulated that this primary seal had never sealed during the full
two minute flight."i It’s at this point that Boisjoly knew he had to go to
his superiors about the problem. In August of 1985 Morton-Thiokol formed a
task force of engineers to solve the problem of the O-rings. This task force
only consisted of 5 engineers who could not solve the problem. NASA wanted
Thiokol to down play the problem because they were under a lot of pressure
due to competition.
The night before the scheduled launch of Challenger,
a teleconference was held between engineers and management from the Kennedy
Space Center, Marshal Space Flight Center in Alabama and Morton-Thiokol in
Utah.ii Boisjoly, and Ernie Thompson another engineer from Thiokol knew this
was their last chance to stop the flight from taking off. Robert Lund, Thiokol’s
Engineering Vice President showed that 53 degrees "was the only low temperature
data Thiokol had for the effects of cold on the operational boosters."iiiBut
they had no data that did prove that it was unsafe to launch at lower temperatures.
Boisjoly and Thompson were unsuccessful in "blowing the whistle." The next
day the Challenger took of from the Kennedy space Center; "a rush of cotton-candy
like smoke washed over the cockpit windows, possibly accompanied by a brief
burst of brilliant orange flames. Almost simultaneously, the astronauts were
crushed down in their seats by a force at least 12 times greater than gravity."iv
After the disaster Boisjoly went to his office, where he stayed and thought.
Some of his colleagues came in to see how he was doing but he could not even
speak, he was so over come with emotion. Their were many factors that effected
neglecting the O-rings. For one NASA had a billion dollar contract with Thiokol
before the disaster and Thiokol felt that causing any problems by expressing
Boisjolys concern could jeopardize the contract. Boisjoly was an engineer and
according to a code of ethics I believe he should have followed, he should
have gone public with the information when NASA told them to down play the
problem. Along with his loyalty to Thiokol he also had a moral obligation
to the crew of the Challenger. A question he should have asked at the time
was "Would I let my wife or children ride in there?"
I believe that
Boisjoly did not do a good enough job in light of the model code of ethics.
I do not know if any one would have been able to stop the flight because NASA
had their set of plans that they wanted to stick to and Thiokol was looking
at the problem from a management point of view. Gerry Mason the President
of Thiokol said to Robert Lund; "take off your engineering hat and put on your
management hat." v I do believe that the code is good in theory but I also
believe that it is very hard to follow. This is so because the engineer must
look at the problem from all points of view. Boisjoly was put in a very tough
position he either goes to the media and loss his job, or down play the serious
problem and risks and eventually destroys the lives of the crew. I personally
believe that I would opt to loss my job because it was the right thing to do,
and because I would not be able to handle the lives of five people on my conscience.
The code of ethics is necessary in any employment situation. But it needs
to be stressed more in the education of an engineer. Engineers must realize
that their are many situations that people put their live in the hands of the
engineer. Every time we step into a car we are relying on the design of an
engineer, and if any part of it fails the passenger could get hurt if not killed.
In today’s society their are many institutions that protect the public from
technology; buildings must meet certain regulations, and cars have to meet
certain safety standards. But their are not as many organizations that protect
the rights of the engineers. When can we say that it is no longer the engineer’s
fault, and say that it is the fault of the operator? Engineers must be careful
when it comes to ethical standards, they should not have to be in the same
position that Boisjoly was in. By evaluating the situation and acting according
to what is best for society and themselves they should find a perfect median
morals and management.
Gerry Mason, January 27 1986