Reading05: Not made to be broken, but sometimes you have to try
On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart just over a minute after its launch, killing all seven of its passengers. The failure was caused by the O-ring seals, which were known to have performed poorly in cold conditions; the temperature that morning was considerably colder than any previous launches, well below a level at which they had already observed numerous issues with the O-rings.
While the O-rings may have been the mechanical cause for the disaster, the root cause is just as much the overlooking of these issues and the decision to go ahead with the launch. NASA was under pressure, from the public and from the government, to produce tangible and demonstrable results. Roger Boisjoly, a Space Shuttle engineer, described a meeting prior to launch as “a meeting where the determination was to launch, and it was up to us to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was not safe to do so,” elaborating that “this is in total reverse to what the position usually is in a preflight conversation or a flight readiness review. It is usually exactly opposite that.”
Engineers and others involved in the program raised concerns about the launch, but for a number of reasons the decision was made to proceed with the launch. In particular raising concerns was the aforementioned engineer, Roger Boisjoly. After repeatedly being met with frustration, he eventually brought his concerns to the public in an attempt to raise awareness about the risks about the launch.
Even though the issues that he was concerned about were shown to be more than credible, this whistleblowing attempt led to Boisjoly being ostracized by colleagues, isolated by managers, and “made life a living hell on a day-to-day basis”. Boisjoly himself said that it “destroyed my career, my life, everything else.”
It’s clear that Boisjoly’s actions were punished. But we must ask the question – were his actions ethical? Should he have done this?
There were defined avenues for Boisjoly to raise concerns at work, and he did his best to use them. It was only after these proved fruitless that he turned to the public. He broke explicit and implicit rules, where professional conduct is concerned.
I would argue, however, that he was justified in doing so. All of his attempts were met with frustration, and he had good reason to believe that if these issues were not addressed, they could (and did) lead to the death of several people. There were rules in place, but he broke them in an attempt to prevent a catastrophe from happening.
Rules are rules for a reason; they govern how we should act and what is permissible. But, there is a point where you have to consider breaking them, and this depends on the severity of what might happen, and to whom. If these faulty O-rings would simply lead to his company losing money, even a substantial amount, Boisjoly, would not have had cause to go public. It was the fact that the repercussions were extremely severe and would affect those who had no part in the decision that he was right to try whatever he could to raise his concerns.
Was his employer right in retaliating against him? On one hand, he did break protocol and raise concerns to the public, something that is by and large frowned upon (for good reason). They would certainly have recourse to penalize such actions. However, for the same reason that he was justified in breaking the normal protocol, this was a time when discretion perhaps should have been used and the normal penalties not applied.
In sum, rules are rules for a reason. However, even when rules are just and proper, there are times when it is ethical to break them. One such example is here, when breaking the rules was the only option that Boisjoly had to try and prevent a catastrophe that ultimately took the lives of seven people.