I periodically read random posts here from years ago, to check and see if I would make a different analysis today, and why. It almost never happens, which is good: though I may not trace all of the steps in every post, the systems, methods, models, values and priorities I use to assess various events and scenarios are established and consistent. I also check older posts when I am uncertain about a new version of an issue I have addressed before. Again, I am almost always struck by how closely my thinking then matches my approach now. I am also often struck by the fact that I don’t recall writing the earlier post at all. There are over 6000 of them, so I don’t feel too senile.
Today, however, I read this NPR story, about a previously unnamed engineer at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol who had been interviewed, with a promise of not being named, by NPR after the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded, 30 years ago. Now Bob Ebeling has finally come forward publicly, and allowed his name to be attached to his tragic story.The night before the launch, he and four other engineers had tried to stop it, because the weather was too cold—it was the coldest launch ever— and their research told them that that the rubber seals on the shuttle’s booster rockets wouldn’t function properly in the extreme temperatures. They begged for the launch to be postponed, but their supervisors and NASA overruled them.
That night, Ebeling told his wife, Darlene, “It’s going to blow up.” It did.
“I was one of the few that was really close to the situation,” Ebeling told NPR. “Had they listened to me and wait[ed] for a weather change, it might have been a completely different outcome…NASA ruled the launch. They had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t.”
Thirty years ago, when Ebeling didn’t want his name used or his voice recorded, he said he feared losing his job but that,”I think the truth has to come out.” After the interview, the investigations, and the law suits, he left the company and suffered from depression and guilt that has lasted to this day. He told NPR that in 1986, as he watched that horrible video again on TV, he thought, “I could have done more. I should have done more.”
Reading and listening to the NPR story, I agreed with him. He should have done more. I was about to write a post from that perspective, when I realized I had not only written about another engineer who had tried to delay the launch, but inducted him into the Ethics Alarms Heroes Hall of Honor. His name was Roger Boisjoly, and of him I wrote in part…
Six months before the Challenger disaster, he wrote a memo to his bosses at Thiokol predicting”a catastrophe of the highest order” involving “loss of human life.” He had identified a flaw in the elastic seals at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets: they tended to stiffen and unseal in cold weather. NASA’s shuttle launch schedule included winter lift-offs, and Boisjoly warned his company that send the Shuttle into space at low temperatures was too risky. On January 27, 1986, the day before the scheduled launch of the Challenger, Boisjoly and his colleague Allan J. McDonald argued for hours with NASA officials to persuade NASA to delay the launch, only to be over-ruled, first by NASA, then by Thiokol, which deferred to its client.
And the next day, on a clear and beautiful morning, the Shuttle’s rocket exploded after take-off, killing the crew of seven and mortally wounding the space program.
My ethics verdict then? This:
“Can we accurately call Roger Boisjoly an Ethics Hero, even though he didn’t stop the launch? I usually don’t like to call people heroes for doing their jobs. If Thiokol and NASA had behaved ethically, competently and rationally, we would not know anything about his memo or him. He did the right things, as his duties demanded. He alerted management to a deadly problem in plenty of time to address it. When they went forward, he argued and protested, until the decision was final. Afterwards, he told the truth to investigators, so the decision-making problems could be addressed. In his world, in that bureaucracy, this—doing his duty, doing the right thing—took courage. He knew, I am certain, that his career would suffer as a result of his actions. Yes, that makes Roger Boisjoly an ethics hero.”
If Boisjoly was a hero, then so is Ebeling, though Boisjoly spent the rest of his professional life lecturing at engineering schools around the world on ethical decision-making, trying to prevent future disasters.
So please help me resolve a Present Jack vs. Past Jack conflict, by considering this Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz:
Are Bob Ebeling and Roger Boisjoly really heroes?
Present Jack is really dubious about this, and wants to say, “No.” Past Jack wrote about Boisjoly, “He did the right things, as his duties demanded. He alerted management to a deadly problem in plenty of time to address it. When they went forward, he argued and protested, until the decision was final. Afterwards, he told the truth to investigators, so the decision-making problems could be addressed, “ but left out a significant fact.
Boisjoly could have stopped the launch. So could Ebeling, and the other engineers, individually or collectively. I began becoming uncomfortable after reading the conclusion of the NPR piece, which ended with this…
I reminded him of something his late colleague and friend Roger Boisjoly once told me. Boisjoly was the other Thiokol engineer who spoke anonymously with NPR 30 years ago. He came to believe that he and Ebeling and their colleagues did all they could.
“We were talking to the right people,” Boisjoly told me. “We were talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch.”
“Maybe,” Ebeling says with a weak wave as I leave. “Maybe Roger’s right.”
Comforting. Unfortunately, it just isn’t true. People died, a nation was traumatized, and the space program was mortally wounded. If Ebeling was so certain that he could tell his wife, “It’s going to blow up,” then talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch wasn’t good enough. Obviously it wasn’t: the Space Shuttle exploded.
Boisjoly, Ebeling and the rest had an ethical obligation in this extraordinary emergency to fix the problem, even at great personnel risk. Do you think NASA would have dared lift-off if all the engineers, or just one, had gone to a reporter, or on the radio or TV, and explained what was about to happen? The engineers had to blow the whistle, which means virtually screaming out loud. They did not do all they could. The next step was full of risk and uncertainty, but lives were at stake. The Challenger need a hero, and none stepped forward.
I don’t know why 2012 Jack didn’t remember this, but I do: a 1951 movie I first saw as a child dealt with this situation exactly. The film is called “No Highway in the Sky,” and it is about a metallurgist (played by James Stewart in oddball mode) who has calculated, using his own, unproven theories, that the plane he’s flying in as a passenger has flown too many miles, and that metal fatigue will cause it to literally fall apart in the air at any second. He causes enough commotion telling other passengers about his fears that the pilot makes an unscheduled landing. An inspection, however clears the aircraft to continue on the flight, but without Stewart, whose sanity is now in doubt. Determined to stop the disaster, the scientist rushes on board the plane and activates the port undercarriage lever, dropping the airliner hard on its belly and damaging it too badly to fly. There is more to the story: it’s a good movie. You can watch all of it on YouTube, here:
It’s 2016 Jack talking now: Desperate times demand desperate action. The tendency of organizations and bureaucracies to plow ahead with plans even after failure and disaster are assured or close to it is well and tragically documented throughout history, as best documented by Jack Kennedy’s favorite historian, Barbara Tuchman, in her classic, “The March of Folly.” I have referred to it here several times. For example, 2013 Jack wrote…
“The March of Folly” was a cold-eyed retrospective of how supposedly brilliant people in power can follow through on destructive and objectively stupid policies;how a mission, ordered by a trusted leader, travels the arc from aspiration to compulsion to obsession, and how the public, paralyzed by deference to authority, inertia and restraint, accepts flawed premises long after the damage they are doing and will continue to do are obvious and undeniable. Tuchman calls this lethal tendency of policymakers a “process of self-hypnosis.” She concentrates on its long and bloody history using examples spanning the Trojan War, through the British handling of the American rebellion and the Vietnam War. In another publication, she applied similar a analysis to the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.
When nobody in the chain of command has the courage, character and certitude to stop such a march, tragedy results. Often the individual who knew disaster loomed steps forward after the fact to say, “I tried, but nobody listened!” For some reason, like 2o12 Jack, society seems to accept this.
Strangely, 2004 Jack understood what 2012 Jack apparently forgot. Writing about the Enron mess on The Ethics Scoreboard, I expressed disgust at the mantle of heroism being granted so-called Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins, who wrote one letter to CEO Ken Lay warning that the company’s operations were inherently unstable, and did nothing more after she was brushed off, other than to sell her own Enron stock. In a post called “Faint Whistle: Enron and Ethics,” I wrote,
Have we come to the point when simply pointing out to superiors that there are problems in the workplace is regarded as evidence of unusual courage? This once was called “doing your job.” All right…not succumbing to a culture gone bad is laudable, but the praise heaped on Sherron Watkins is all out of proportion to her actions.
And let’s agree to reserve the term “Whistle-blower” for someone who actually prevents, or stops, or calls public attention to the conduct in question.
Let’s apply that standard to Boisjoly and Ebeling.
Calls public attention to the conduct in question.
Sure…after it was too late.
Present Jack is strongly leaning toward joining the 2004 and 2013 Jacks in concluding that 2012 Jack was wrong. I am very tempted to pull Roger Boisjoly‘s Ethics Hero Emeritus honor.
Talk me out of it, if you can.