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Ethics Case Study No. 1: Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

On January 28, 1986 NASA’s space shuttle orbiter Challenger broke apart and disintegrated 73 seconds after launch, killing the seven members of the crew. The loss of the Challenger had serious consequences for NASA, sidelining the shuttle program for nearly three years and irreparably marred NASA’s reputation. A presidential commission was formed to investigate the accident, and concluded that the breaking up and disintegration of the Challenger was caused by a failure in the O-ring seals in the solid rocket booster.  The O-rings failed as a result of operation during below freezing temperatures, a known issue. The day before the launch engineers from Morton Thiokol, the company who manufactured the solid rocket boosters advised NASA to delay the launch based on below freezing weather forecasts at the launch site.

This case is presented by Allan J. McDonald, former director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project for Morton Thiokol, and the engineer who was asked to approve the January 28th launch of the Challenger. In this video Allan discusses the events surrounding the facts surrounding the Challenger disaster, the culture within the NASA program, and the ethical challenges he faced in late January 1986, and in the ensuing years. 

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Soon after Allan McDonald spoke publicly to congress about the details surrounding the decision to launch he was demoted by displeased executives at Morton Thiokol. Members of congress were disturbed by the retaliation against McDonald and threatened to forbid Morton Thiokol from getting future NASA contracts. The company relented and McDonald was promoted to Vice President and headed redesign of the booster rockets. McDonald retied from Morton Thiokol in 2001 and later co-authored one of the clearest accounts of the Challenger disaster, Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. In retirement, McDonald became a fierce advocate of ethical decision-making and spoke to hundreds of engineering students, engineers and managers. Allan McDonald died in March 2021. 

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