05. The Challenger

From the readings, what were the root causes of the Challenger disaster? Was Roger Boisjoly ethical in sharing information with the public? Was his company justified in retaliating against him? What good is whistleblowing if “[i]t destroy[s] [your] career, [your] life, everything else”?

On January 28, 1986 The Challenger Space Shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launching. To understand the causes for the launch, it is important to point out that the launch was part of a larger program that would require NASA to launch ~60 times a year in order to self-fund the program. Obviously, this put a tremendous amount of pressure on NASA and the mission’s managers. The launch had already been delayed, so on the night of January 27, when NASA was advised not to launch the next morning, they could not take that as an answer. During that night, engineers at the manufacturing company (Morton Thiokol) tried to convince managers of the severity of the risks so that their official suggestion to NASA would be not to launch. They had former knowledge about faulty O-rings (the seal to spaceships rockets and the part that prevents hot gas from entering the fuel tank) and through their calculations, had determined that it was much too risky to launch at temperatures lower than 54 degrees Fahrenheit. However, managers of Morton Thiokol unwisely choose to reverse their suggestion (because they felt engineers had no hard proof and they were being forced by NASA essentially to give them the suggestion they wanted to hear), allowing NASA to launch in temperatures that hovered around the 20s. The cold temperatures promoted the O-rings malfunction and caused the ship to explode shortly after launching.

Within an hour of the accident, 85% of the United States knew about it. NASA accepted there had been “obvious malfunction” and prohibited employees from speaking to reporters under any circumstance, and thus was able to detract attention from the O-rings. However, Roger Boisjoly, one of the engineers at Morton Thiokol, spoke with NPR under an anonymity clause, took all his notes, made copies of them, and eventually turned them in. This is how the world found out about the O-rings.

As with most things regarding ethics, it’s hard to draw a sharp line between when to voice your beliefs and knowledge and when to keep it to yourself. Boisjoly is one of the most famous “engineer whistleblowers” and was “accused of ‘airing the company’s dirty laundry’ in front of the whole country”(http://whistleblowing.us/whistleblower-memorials/boisjoly-roger/). He revealed exactly how things had played out and pointed out the major flaws in the system. As a result, he was “treated [us] as if we had just been arrested for child sexual abuse.” by his colleagues, Thoikol removed him from all space work, and NASA tried to remove him from the industry. This retaliation was completely unnecessary. Neither party gained anything from it and it is purely an act of vengeance, which is clearly never an ethical decision.

For the most part, though, I believe Boisjoly acted ethically in sharing this information with the public. Without him, NASA would have likely never revealed the source of the accident, the victim’s families would never have had closure to the terrible death of their loved ones, and worse off, NASA might have not been pressured enough to make regulation and safety procedural changes. Because of this accident, NASA required spaceships to have three O-rings, rather than two. And that, I believe, is the good that comes from whistleblowing. Yes, whistleblowers might experience a living nightmare in the most extreme cases (which is unethical and unreasonable in it of itself), but to me there seems to be a greater good that comes from it.

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