Now that we’ve established the need for foundational ethical codes of conduct to govern our discipline, we can start to apply these codes of conduct on example case studies. The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) maintains an extensive, searchable database of ethical review cases to help educate engineers. This database provides real cases brought before the board and the process by which they arrived at a conclusion whether unethical behavior occurred. We’ll be able to reference these cases through the remainder of class.

Today we’re going to discuss a complex case with multiple ethical considerations, but first, let’s watch a shuttle launch.

The Challenger disaster came at a time where NASA was trying to deal with the harsh reality of space and struggling, for the first time to remain relevant to the general public. Media attention had dropped significantly from the Apollo moon missions, and Challenger was an attempt to rekindle some interest in the space – largely through the inclusion of Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space. NASA relied on it’s popularity to rationalize the amount of funding it received, and was facing criticism that shuttles were a flawed design the never lived up to the expense. This, combined with “every day” concerns of operating an expensive, complex system like the Space Shuttle (cost of launch abort, several previous delays, cost of personnel and maintenance already dedicated to launching on time, etc.) put a great deal of pressure on NASA to launch without further delay. The communications structure internal to NASA, as well as between NASA and it’s suppliers, passed this pressure on to suppliers such as Morton-Thiokol, the manufacturer of the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs). What resulted was a series of ethical issues, before and after the accident, which in some cases were handled properly, and in some cases, were not.

Ethics Analysis

When performing an ethics analysis into a case such as this, it’s best to following a design heuristic like the following:

  1. Establish a system boundary for the problem — what is it that you are studying and what are the key drivers/influences affecting the system.
  2. List facts and assumptions — what are the knowns and unknowns for the problem
  3. Establish precedence and intent — review the prior art
  4. Apply applicable laws, codes, and standards
  5. Develop a solution to render verdict and prevent such acts from reoccurring

In this case the system was NASA’s shuttle groups and primary contractors. To gather information about the rest of the process, President Reagan launched a presidential review which became known as the Roger’s Report. One of these experts who served on the panel was Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman.

To understand Feynman, and you should try. I HIGHLY recommend reading the books: “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!” and the sequel that includes the Challenger disaster review “What do you care what other people think?” As soon as Feynman found out he was to be on the review committee, he walked across the street to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, found a group of engineers and asked them what they could explain to him about the Shuttle design and the disaster. Feynman found these unofficial visits to be highly informative, as talking directly with the scientists and engineers, as opposed to through their managers, resulted in a much more efficient method to determining the root cause. He followed this visit up with unofficial visits to NASA Marshal Space Flight Center and Kennedy Space Center. Some of the egregious problems he noted was the early estimates into the failure rates of the Shuttle, which was supposed to fail 1 in 100,000 launches! Many of these were identified in his report that contributed to other problems within the agency. But the ability to discredit an analysis with a simple impromptu demonstration is priceless.

Sections of the Code of Ethics pertaining to this case:

I. Introduction

1. Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

5. Avoid deceptive acts.

6. Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

II. Rules of Conduct

1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

a. If engineers’ judgment is overruled under circumstances that endanger life or property, they shall notify their employer or client and such other authority as may be appropriate.

e. Engineers shall not aid or abet the unlawful practice of engineering by a person or firm.

3. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

a. Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony. They shall include all relevant and pertinent information in such reports, statements, or testimony, which should bear the date indicating when it was current.

b. Engineers may express publicly technical opinions that are founded upon knowledge of the facts and competence in the subject matter.

5. Engineers shall avoid deceptive acts.

III. Professional Obligations

1. Engineers shall be guided in all their relations by the highest standards of honesty and integrity.

a. Engineers shall acknowledge their errors and shall not distort or alter the facts.

b. Engineers shall advise their clients or employers when they believe a project will not be successful.

2. Engineers shall at all times strive to serve the public interest

b. Engineers shall not complete, sign, or seal plans and/or specifications that are not in conformity with applicable engineering standards. If the client or employer insists on such unprofessional conduct, they shall notify the proper authorities and withdraw from further service on the project.

3. Engineers shall avoid all conduct or practice that deceives the public.

a. Engineers shall avoid the use of statements containing a material misrepresentation of fact or omitting a material fact.

5. Engineers shall not be influenced in their professional duties by conflicting interests.

A few further considerations on the ethical design and operation of the Space Shuttle:

It is believed that the crew of the shuttle survived until impact with the surface of the ocean, and possible that they may have been conscious. Emergency air supplies had been turned on, and several safety switches on the pilot’s electrical console were moved from launch positions. Despite this, there was no way for the crew to survive the disaster. Ejection seats had been implemented on earlier test flights, but, as the Roger’s Report states, “Other options for “operational” flights carrying crews of five or more astronauts were considered, but were not implemented because of limited utility, technical complexity and excessive cost in dollars, weight or schedule delays.”
Was it ethical to design a system where the users had no chance of surviving such a catastrophic failure?

Christa McAuliffe was a civilian teacher, put on the shuttle largely as a PR stunt for NASA and the Regan administration. She was not a member of the astronaut corps and had only 4 months of training before launch, rather than the extensive 20 month training given to astronauts. Was it ethical to include her in such a high risk situation, and was she properly informed and prepared for the risk?

The system problems of having to work through a large bureaucracy to gain funding from Congress created a difficult systems challenge that contributed to the disaster.  Feynman noted this in subsequent interviews.

Further Information:

Remembering the mistakes of Challenger at NASASpaceflight.com

THE SHUTTLE EXPLOSION; TRANSCRIPT OF NASA NEWS CONFERENCE ON THE SHUTTLE DISASTER, New York Times