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The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster Essay

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Updated: Dec 8th, 2020

Introduction

The case of the space shuttle Challenger is, probably, one of the biggest disasters in the history of American space exploration. Challenger, the second NASAs reusable orbiter, broke apart 73 seconds after the launch, which took the lives of seven crew members. The investigation which followed the case revealed the major technical reason that caused the explosion – faulty O-rings (Wilkinson, 2016). Nevertheless, this technical cause is a consequence of activities provided by NASA, Marshal Space Flight Center (responsible for booster rocket development), and Morton Thiokol, the contractor responsible for building the solid rocket booster. Thus, the case of Challenger implies some organizational aspects and those related to organizational ethics in particular. This case study provides an analysis of the space shuttle Challenger came from organizational ethics and suggests solutions and recommendations.

Case Background

The Challenger launch on 28 January 1986 was an expected event and attracted much public attention. Long preparation preceded the launch and many professionals were involved. The explosion in midair shortly after the launch caused the death of all crew members and became a shock to the public. The investigation provided by the Rogers Commission revealed the following facts. Morton Thiokol, the contractor that was building the solid rocket booster, informed the press that they were against the launch because of the expected problems with O-rings. Nevertheless, levels I and II decision-makers at NASA reported to the commission they were not aware of any controversies between the contractor company and the Marshall Space Flight Center, which were the decision-makers of levels IV and II and would not have allowed the launch if they had known about the problems. After all, the Commission concluded that the decision-making process, which involved all the stakeholders, failed, and led to the launch of the Challenger.

The case involves issues of organizational ethics because organizations that were providing the launch preparation did not consider all risks, which led to people’s death. Previous launch delays because of weather and a fault made NASA worried about the launch schedules more than about the safety concerns because of the competition for scarce funding (Wilkinson, 2016). Another point is that the problem with O-rings was not new and was already reported in 1977, and it was made worse by low temperatures which preceded the launch. In fact, due to the demands of competition, information about anomalies of O-rings was conspired and was not spread throughout the involved companies. Thus, lack of organizational ethics within the team that prepared the launch of the Challenger and drawbacks in the decision-making of NASA as well as poor communication between the management of different levels, became an indirect cause of the disaster.

Alternatives

The case of the Challenger could have had an alternative result in case of better organizational ethics of the stakeholders. Thus, design engineers from Morton Thiokol could have demonstrated more professional responsibility and communicate more effectively with NASA management. In its turn, NASA management could have been more concerned with the safety of the crew than with keeping to the schedule. Also, the engineers could have paid more attention to management to the severity of possible problems with O-rings because of the cold weather enough since they had not been tested in such conditions. However, the major ethical concern of the case is that NASA was aware of the O-rings problem but did not react. Probably, the behavior of NASA is another example of decoupling ethics investigated by MacLean, Litzky, and Holderness (2014), which usually has undesirable consequences for companies. Another alternative could have been the use of another risk management model, which could have allowed a timely definition of risks and their avoidance. Thus, Altabbakh, Murray, Grantham, and Damle (2013) investigated the benefits and drawbacks of two types of risk assessment tools on the example of NASA and the Challenger disaster.

Proposed Solution

Cases similar to that of Challenger should be avoided. Thus, there is a need for a solution that will be effective for future launches of space shuttles. First of all, more attention should be paid to organizational ethics within NASA and between MASA and other involved stakeholders. Ethical issues are closely related to the development of new products (Brusoni & Vaccaro, 2016). Technology, which is initially ethically neutral, is created and used by people with different outcomes implying ethical concerns. What is more, theoretical ethics which is usually studied in business schools should have practical application during decision-making in organization and management (Joseph, 2016). Another aspect involving ethics is related to social responsibility (Sean & Lynn, 2016). It is important that such organizations as NASA were aware of their social responsibility and made ethical decisions based on careful risk management strategies (Valentine & Godkin, 2016). On the whole, the disaster could have been avoided in case all the stakeholders followed their responsibilities. The solution to the case includes consideration of all technical information of the project (such as faulty O-rings in the Challenger case); use of equipment in the conditions outlined in operational specifications (including temperature); effective communication between the stakeholders; avoidance of management pressure; and giving more attention to safety concerns than to budget or political pressure as it happened in the Challenger’s case.

Recommendations

The following recommendations can be given after the case analysis. They can be applied to shuttle launch preparation as well as to other complicated projects. First of all, it is important to attract a reliable team. The contractors should be experienced and with the necessary certification. Secondly, it is important to teach management how to make ethical and effective decisions. Much attention should be given to organizational ethics within the company as well as between all participants of the project. Moreover, this communication should work efficiently between the different levels of decision-makers allowing engineers to inform managers about the existing problems. Thirdly, quality, and safety should be the primary concerns of project managers and not the speed of construction or implementation. Certainly, it is important to follow the schedule, but not at the cost of personnel safety. Speaking in more detail, engineers can try alternative solid rocket booster design and test it before launch in the conditions approximated to real. Also, NASA should review the roles and responsibilities of managers involved in the project. Also, launch schedules should be planned with the consideration of possible delays because of weather conditions or technical issues. Probably, there is a need for more serious safety control at all stages of project implementation starting from design development to testing and launching the final product. This complex of measures can have a positive effect on the realization of future projects and increase their safety.

References

Altabbakh, H., Murray, S., Grantham, K., & Damle, S. (2013). Variations in risk management models: A comparative study of the space shuttle challenger disaster. Engineering Management Journal, 25(2), 13-24.

Brusoni, S., & Vaccaro, A. (2016). Ethics, rechnology and organizational innovation. Journal of Business Ethics, 143(2), 223-226.

Joseph, T. (2016). The integration of theoretical ethics with practical decision-making in organization and management. Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 13(3), 98-105.

MacLean, T., Litzky, B., & Holderness, D. (2014). When organizations don’t walk their talk: A cross-level examination of how decoupling formal ethics programs affects organizational members. Journal of Business Ethics, 128(2), 351-368.

Valentine, S., & Godkin, L. (2016). Ethics policies, perceived social responsibility, and positive work attitude. Irish Journal of Management, 35(2), 114-128.

Wilkinson, J. (2016). The Challenger space shuttle disaster. Loss Prevention Bulletin, 251, 26-31.

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