The space shuttle Challenger crashed 73 seconds during takeoff on its 10th deployment, killing all seven crew members and profoundly impacting NASA’s space agency (Robison et al., 2017). As with most transportation incidents, there are typically other elements that contribute to creating an atmosphere conducive to failures. This paper thoroughly investigates the cause and underlying circumstances of the Challenger disaster, also exploring the ethical implications.
Challenger Disaster and Ethical Implications
Even though the technical malfunction of a solid rocket booster (SRB) “O” ring triggered the Shuttle Challenger’s explosion, the human decision to deploy was defective in itself. The decision to launch was premised on erroneous group decision support data, exacerbated by the poor management of that data. NASA planned to launch the Challenger as soon as possible to prepare the space station for another operation, which would hold a probe to study Halley’s Comet. This probe would have collected information a few days before a related Russian probe was launched if it had been launched on time. There was presumably also some pressure to deploy Challenger to be in orbit when President Reagan delivered his State of the Union speech.
They did not believe that a launch should be halted because there was insufficient evidence to make an informed judgment. This was a shift in mindset from the initial periods of the space program when launching was avoided until all the issues were known. This logic can be traced back to a previous phase of the shuttle program when upper-level NASA executives were notified of difficulties with the rocket design but did not terminate the program until the issue was fixed. The Shuttle was created as a utility with no specific purpose in mind. As a result, politically and economically, there was little contribution to such a project. Presenting the Shuttle program to the defense to increase public safety and commerce as a tool to generate new economic opportunities helped to secure support. Scientists advocated that the Challenger would be a significant scientific achievement for the country (ASCE, n.d.). The Shuttle was pitched around the world as a cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) and to better national and social interactions by bringing together people of many nationalities, ethnicities, and gender as crew members.
The reliability of data is also of ethical consideration. The reality that both NASA and Thiokol’s management was unconcerned by Thiokol’s worries is quite troubling. Robison et al. (2017) show that everyone in the discussion decided despite the data being inaccurate. Another source of concern is that the decision prioritized operational aims over safety. Furthermore, team dynamics, including mind protection, direct coercion, and self-censorship, impeded open and accessible conversation before and during the GDSS session. Persons aware of a situation that could create societal harm if not appropriately handled must inform any entity that can effectively manage the issue in the public interest.
NASA leadership was eager to deploy the Challenger for various factors, such as financial concerns, political factors, and planning long delays. Due to unexpected rivalry from the European Space Agency, NASA was forced to establish the Space Transportation System’s cost efficiency and marketing prospects by flying the Shuttle in a highly aggressive timeframe. In order to build a case for its budget allocations, NASA scheduled a high number of flights. Due to bad weather and mechanical issues, the shuttle launch before the Challenger had been delayed a remarkable bunch of times.
ASCE. (n.d.). Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster: Ethics Case Study no. 1. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbtY_Wl-hYI
Robison, W., Boisjoly, R., Hoeker, D., & Young, S. (2017). Representation and misrepresentation: Tufte and the Morton Thiokol engineers on the Challenger. Engineering Ethics, 121-143. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315256474-12