As engineers, we get to work on some pretty cool stuff, and we can help to improve other people’s lives using our knowledge and skills. This is great, but it is also a huge responsibility. In some cases, it’s a matter of life and death. One such case is the Challenger disaster of 1986. The physical cause of the disaster was the cold temperature and the rubber O-ring, but the true cause of the fatal disaster was pride, apathy, and the failure to stand up for what is right under pressure. This is an interesting case because the truth didn’t come out until after people had died. Although Roger Boisjoly is held up as a hero for blowing the whistle on NASA’s failure to listen to his warnings prior to the launch, Vivian Weil notes that “once the decision to launch had been made, he and the other engineers in Utah fell into line, as expected, and accepted the decision” (Whistleblowing: What Have We Learned Since the Challenger?). Even though he may have acted more ethically than his superiors, he still fell short. The scariest thing is that there were so many opportunities to stop the launch. They had put in the work to identify an issue, and they continued anyway, fully knowing that lives were at stake. All it would have taken was for one person along the line to postpone the launch. Everyone who was involved was equally to blame whether that’s the management that disregarded the warning or Boisjoly himself who went along with the decision and accepted it. It’s hard to speak out against authority, but it’s so important to, especially when doing so could save a life.
I don’t think it was unethical of Boisjoly to share information about what went wrong with the public. He didn’t go straight to the public via some platform such as WikiLeaks; Boisjoly exposed the errors in a proper manner when summoned to testify during the Rogers Commission. Morton Thiokol probably only retaliated against him because they knew they had made mistake, and they were embarrassed that others were made aware of it. It also reflected poorly on NASA as a client for proceeding despite the risks. This is where pride came into play. The two companies didn’t want to admit that they’d messed up and take responsibility for the deaths of people who had trusted them. Even though he faced backlash from his employer and others in the industry, it’s pretty safe to say that Boisjoly made the right move in exposing the poor decisions made leading up to the Challenger launch. It’s unfortunate that he was punished rather than rewarded for being honest and telling the truth, but it was ethically the right decision to make, and I think the personal peace of knowing that he did the right thing outweighed the negative consequences he faced. It would have been worse to stay in a company or profession that didn’t take safety concerns seriously enough and have to live with the guilt of knowing that he didn’t do everything possible to ensure other people’s safety. As awful as the Challenger incident was, we can’t go back in time and bring those people back to life. The only way to honor them is to move forward with a greater care for human life, and to keep this at the center of every decision made.