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Ethical Decisions Leading Up to the Challenger Disaster

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Engineering
Wordcount: 1182 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Shuttle Ethics Report


This paper is an analysis of the ethical decisions that lead up to and caused the Challenger disaster in 1986.  It explores the decisions made by engineers and management at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Morton-Thiokol in the design and management of the Space Transport System (Space Shuttle) program.  This paper uses two articles that report the conclusions from the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (the Rogers Commission), and suggests changes and improvements to the design of the shuttles as well as the process leading up to the launch.


Shuttle Ethics Report

 After the Challenger exploded in 1986, an in-depth investigation was set in motion to discover what went wrong and how to best prevent a disaster like this in the future.  This Rogers Commision found that one of the issues from the start was the design of the rocket itself.  A system of O-rings and heat resistant putty was designed to keep hot combustion gasses from escaping the motor.  However, this system did not work as intended because in 1981 it was found that hot gasses were escaping through the putty and eroding the O-rings.  Engineers at Morton-Thiokol had not tested the system at temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but expected that the low temperatures would incite increased O-ring erosion (Department of Philosophy) .  The engineers at Morton-Thiokol abided by the first fundamental Canon of the engineering code of ethics: to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public (National Society of Professional Engineers [NSPE], 2018).  The engineers alerted NASA of this issue once it was discovered and started working on a fix.  Unfortunately this fix was not ready in time for the launch of the Challenger.  NASA and Morton-Thiokol should have communicated and worked together to fix the technical problems as soon as they were discovered.  According to Seton Hall University, the engineers at Morton-Thiokol had known about the O-ring problems for eight years (p.1).  Morton-Thiokol and NASA should have added a greater layer of protection between the hot gasses and the outside of the motor to make the rocket safer.
 While mechanical problems with the Space Shuttle were the direct cause of the Challenger explosion, there were many more factors at play.  Another major cause for the disaster was ineffective communication.  During the days and weeks leading up to the launch, many different workers at NASA were aware of the problem with the O-rings and yet failed to communicate them.  According to Seton Hall University:

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 On the day before the launch, a delay because of the weather was debated. The weather was expected to be much colder than any conditions in which the O-rings had been tested. More than 30 people were in at least 25 communication situations during this period discussing the O-ring problem. Yet none of the concerns reached levels I or II. (p. 4)

Even though many people were alerted to the O-ring erosion, the issue was not brought to the attention of the higher level NASA management.  This lack of communication of possible complications in the launch goes against the engineering code of ethics.  According to the NSPE, “Engineers shall advise their clients or employers when they believe a project will not be successful” (2018).  The lower level NASA managers knew that there was a possibility that the Challenger launch would fail, but they neglected to tell the higher level employees who may have delayed the launch.

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Finally, another cause of the Challenger explosion is the disagreements between the engineers and the management figures.  The engineers at Morton-Thiokol were more wary about launching the Challenger because of the cold weather and the faulty O-rings, but the management were under pressure to launch.  “Thiokol’s engineers gave an hour-long presentation, presenting a convincing argument that the cold weather would exaggerate the problems of joint rotation and delayed O-ring seating” (Department of Philosophy, p. 5).  The engineers at Morton-Thiokol recommended that the launch be delayed so that more tests could be run on launching in cold weather.  The managers at Morton-Thiokol, including Joe Kilminster and Jerald Mason, however, argued that the launch was safe.  According to Department of Philosophy and Department of Mechanical Engineering:

The new recommendation stated that the cold was still a safety concern, but
their people had found that the original data was indeed inconclusive and their “engineering assessment” was that launch was recommended, even though the engineers had no part in writing the new recommendation and
refused to sign it. (p. 6)

Even though the engineers recommended that the launch be delayed, managers at Morton-Thiokol experienced groupthink and advised that the rocket be launched.  Groupthink is when the members in a group conform to a consensus that each member would individually not agree with (Janis, I. L., & Mann, L.).  Even though the engineers followed their code of ethics by putting safety first, the management let their own goals and deadlines cloud their judgement and contribute to the failure.

 The Challenger disaster is a complex issue caused by a variety of problems including the mechanical issues of the rocket booster, the failure to communicate these issues, and the conflicts between engineers and management.  These problems are not all black and white, as there are many sides to the issue.  While of course safety needs to be put above all else, there will always be risks involved in launching rockets and this risk must be balanced and deemed acceptable and necessary.  The Challenger explosion must be learned from, so that these problems experienced will not occur again and space flight can continue successfully.


  • Department of Philosophy & Department of Mechanical Engineering. (n.d.). The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. Retrieved from: http://ethics.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2017/04/Shuttle.pdf
  • Janis, I. L., & Mann, L. (n.d.). Group Think. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from http://pirate.shu.edu/~mckenndo/ethics-GroupThink.htm
  • National Society of Professional Engineers. (2018). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from: https://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics
  • Seton Hall University. (n.d.). The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster A Study in Organizational Ethics. Retrieved from: http://pirate.shu.edu/~mckenndo/pdfs/The%20Space%20Shuttle%20Challenger%20Disaster.pdf


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