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.
29 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Second Thoughts About An Ethics Hero Emeritus”
I saw that old Jimmy Steward movie a long time ago. It seemed implausible that some engineer would put his career at risk by deliberately damaging an expensive airplane but I guess in the 50s whistleblowers weren’t treated as badly as they are now. For a NASA engineer to threaten to to go to some reported and probably lose his job is possible with an exceptionally heroic guy. But frankly, I feel sorry for the guy who wrote memos and argued at length with NASA about the seal problem to try and stop the launch.
Well, threatening is dumb for sure. You just blow, man. Just put your lips together. Ethics Chess:”I know or am very sure that the shuttle will blow up, killing the crew. When and if it does, how will I feel? Since teh answer is “shit for the rest of my miserable life.” why wouldn’t you stop it? How can anything be worse than the likely result if you do nothing?
Delayed whistle blower might still be appropriate if what happened was looking to disappear from denial or coverup. About rescinding the Hero title, I tend to resist taking titles away unless for criminal level reasons (like the Wilson high schools).
Not sure I get that. The Hall is for Heroes. if he’s not one, then…?
Okay, I don’t think the earlier one should be removed, amended commentary perhaps. I don’t approve of all the second guessing and removing of honors when the wind bows differently. Honors should be carefully considered before giving, as removing them cheapens the honors. Will as many think this year’s Oscars mean as much with the boycots and backpedaling? Does naming a high school mean as much when a bias alone a century later is enough to undo it? Does a stadiu, mean anything when it cane be bought or rented? Honors should not be rescinded barring extreme malfeasance. People given honors will still have flaws, and taking it back I view as PC.
I admit I doubt I would have agreed with a a hero award for someone who stayed anonymous when the heat was on. But the award was given, and now they are examples of imperfect heroes and still instructive.
Wouldn’t even try to talk you out of it, even if I could. The deaths of 7 people, tragic as it was, was and is secondary to the death of the space program, which you rightly attribute to this horrible decision. With a space program, carrying on to it’s logical conclusion, we would have space-based industry (cheaper, more efficient and certainly more precise in a weightless environment, not to mention safer, out of the atmosphere), space-generated power and the same sort of excitement generated by the moon landing. In short, we would have a National Goal, rather than fighting for our survival, against a coalition of nations of 7th century barbarians, with a NASA chief that wants to do outreach to the Syrians. It is also possible that we would never have had Bill Clinton, George Bush (either of them) or Barrack Obama, not would we have a “protect all people from all things” mentality which is totally foreign to our national identity.
Part of the problem is that the space program was on it’s last legs, anyway. Senator Proxmire and his “Golden Fleece” award saw to that, truncating the exploration, settlement and exploitation of the moon, and any other resources in the solar system. The reason: the money could be better spent buying votes under the guise of caring for the poor. Sadly, our economy NEEDED the boost a continued space program would have given it. You want to see a booming economy, wait ’till you see (if any of us will live long enough) what a space-based economy will look like. So, in a very real sense, these guys didn’t just destroy the space program, they destroyed our future, as well. All because they feared for their jobs, and kept their mouth’s shut. So much for heroes.
Yup. And nicely articulated.
Cheaper? More efficient? I’m gonna need a citation there. Is it suddenly going to cost nothing to get stuff up the gravity well? What about back down without making a crater?
Power? With what? Solar panels can be placed on open ground much easier than in orbit. Fission? You have to get those heavy metals up the gravity well riding on top of a giant explosive and then beam the power back down through the air rather than through copper wires. There’s a reason we don’t do that now and it isn’t just not wanting to cook passing birds.
I love space, I grew up on stories of space, I read them still. And the non-fiction, Chris Hadfield’s autobiography, just wow.* Orbital and interplanetary industry sounds great. Cheap and efficient it is not. Come back when you have a viable plan for a space elevator, then we’ll talk, though we know of nothing in those asteroids that we can’t already find on earth.
*For those interested, it is called An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything published by Back Bay Books.
Hindsight bias and the opposite of moral luck, whatever that term is.
He thought it would explode; had he been wrong, we would not be thinking about this. But, it did explode, so we have to look at this as confirmation bias, hindsight bias and that he was morally unlucky. He can claim certainty that it would have exploded, but how many of such predictions were proven false? We don’t know. That sort of thing goes unreported (“doomed space flight takes off without a hitch”).
Take the honor away if you want to or not, that is what you need to consider
I wouldn’t be too hard on the guy, but…
Your Heroes page says heroes are people “who make our lives and many others better by living their own selflessly and well. They are our salvation, role models and neighbors, and they teach us the lesson that all is never lost, and hope is always thriving, as long as there are good and courageous people who will do the right thing, no matter what the cost, when fate turns to them.”
By that definition, Boisjoly did nothing heroic in the months, days, and hours leading up to the Challenger explosion.
I could argue either way but I would go with ethics heroes. They were likely under strict non disclosure agreements, agreements that may have been fallen under government secrets statutes. Additionally they were in positions that too much dissent often leads to loss of livelihood. They likely pushed it as far as the legally could, to go farther would have likely meant they would have to break the law. From an outside perspective, but having worked on government engineering programs, it is nearly impossible to know how often in such a complex program engineers have felt that something is pushing a threshold, the leadership must conduct a risk assessment and decisions must be made with mission accomplishment as the goal. These employees have a duty to their program, to provide the best advice possible and to honor the decisions made by the program leadership. They never stopped voicing concern even after the decision was made, I think under the circumstances they did all they could and more without breaking the law or risking disclosing our technology.
I haven’t seen any reason to think any of the NASA engineers and key decision makers were incompetent or corrupt. Boisjoly and Ebeling certainly had a duty to make sure their very serious concerns were heard in the right quarters, and I understand they did that. Their bosses had a duty to hear and assess all the risks in an integrated and consistent way. I guess the system worked well even though in this case it got the wrong answer. Nobody deserves hero status except arguably the seven who died, who were also ‘just doing their jobs’. I doubt whether any of the launches in that period could have gone ahead without overriding some doomsayers. It was dangerous business.
I think of Watergate. Very risky business. But they went ahead and blew that whistle. Boisjoly and Ebeling, if they truly believed that the shuttle would explode, are sniveling cowards. I myself am usually a coward, but the things about which I am cowardly don’t endanger anyone’s life. These men were in possession of incomparable knowledge about a situation. They were also endowed with great responsibility within their field of expertise. With great responsibility comes great risk. They apparently were not willing to embrace the risk that came with their responsibility. The only good I could see resulting from their after-the-fact disclosures is to try to prevent future tragedies of this nature and perhaps to ensure that those directly responsible were held accountable.
I think they were heroes, even though I personally would have done more, like my father did.
He was fired of course, professionally blacklisted and with a concerted and successful PR campaign to discredit him.
My father failed to make a difference. But at least he knew he’d done all he could, including going to mass media as a last resort.
And it only cost $8 billion to get it right in the end, with comparatively few deaths over the period.
I can rightfully be criticised for holding others to different standards than I do for myself of course. Call it egotism that I feel I have to be better than others, or possibly it’s a safety measure to reduce my self-righteous priggishness to tolerable levels.
Anyway, it works for me.
My father also figures in my calculation. As I have mentioned here before, he had at least three instances in WWII, as a captain, where he refused a direct order in combat that he believed was illegal and/or incompetent. All three times he saved lives. All three times, he was threatened with court martial. All three times, he said, “Let’s get this in front of tribunal, then, and see what happens, especially after your orders lead to a catastrophe.” All three times, the superior backed down, and once, my father wrote in his memoirs, the officer actually had the class later to thank my Dad for opposing him. That was my Dad, all the way. I’ll certain he would not have allowed the Shuttle to launch.
If a Samurai’s boss was insisting on doing something that he disagreed with strongly he would commit Sepuku in protest. I believe this was something that actually happened on occasions. Now THAT is an ethics hero.
I would think that you would at least need to quit your job to get that accolade in this situation.
I’m a little dubious about the eloquent elegies for the U.S. space program above. I think space is an inherently and unforgivingly hostile environment for human life. According to a retired astrophysicist friend of mine, most everything beneficial about space can be done remotely without putting human lives at risk. The whole idea of ‘”putting a man on the Moon” is probably suspect.
Let’s not forget the other shuttle disaster attributed to ceramic, heat resistant tiles being knocked off the bottom of the shuttle by ice resulting in the deaths of all the crew members upon re-entry. Fragile, ceramic tiles? Glued to what, aluminum? titanium? Let’s put a bunch of lives at risk based on … adhesives working?
I know humans are supposed to be adventuresome and “touch the face of God,” and all that, but just because we read about something in “Popular Science” as kids, or Jack Kennedy read a speech that PIerre Salinger or Ted Sorenson wrote about it, doesn’t make it sensible or prudent. And I know, we got Teflon(R) and Tang(R), but still, 2016 Other Bill is just revisiting 1964 Other Bill and the Race for Space (brought to us by Walter Cronkite and The Prudential Insurance Company)..
I was struck by two things, one just before that launch that I did not appreciate until somewhat later, and one a few years after that, which struck me as having an unintended irony.
The first was a news broadcast in the run up to the launch, that showed NASA staff having to improvise and use hammers or similar to knock open the hatches to let the crew in as the hatches had frozen shut (ice was visible, if I recall correctly). Vast numbers of U.S. residents must have seen that, and a significant proportion of those must have known (as I myself did not fully appreciate) that that indicated that the systems had not been prepared for use in such cold conditions – including critical systems. That makes a significant number of people guilty of omission.
The second was a line early in The China Syndrome in which Jack Lemon’s character pooh poohs safety concerns by pointing out that the nuclear reactor’s safety standards were second only to NASA’s. If only people had carried that parallel further …
I almost used the China Syndrome along with “No Highway in the Sky”, the later scene where Jack Lemmon tries to take over the plant. You read my mind.
If the shuttle had not blown up, I doubt Mr. Eberling would even remember his doubts that night. After the explosion, it seemed inevitable. The human mind works that way. He did his job and reported his concerns. In this case the decision was made to accept the risk. In retrospect, I think everyone involved wishes they had decided not to launch at that time. The thing about risk analysis and risk balancing is that you are always operating on incomplete and conflicting information and goals and the word risk is in there for a reason.
My opinion about NASA was that their risk tolerance level was too low, not too high. Everyday, most of us get in our cars and drive. It is dangerous. The statistics are clear. We still do it because we value the utility more than the risk. I think the utility of us getting into space justifies a huge level of risk. Others will vary based on their own value systems. The government obviously was only able to tolerate a low level of risk since this relatively minor accident (in comparison with traffic accidents that happen every day) derailed their whole program. That speaks to a very low level of commitment, not by the people in the program, but by the American public.
I would not find either Mr. Eberling or Mr. Boisjoly heroes or villains. I think they both did their job. Something bad happened, yes, but to me it wasn’t the shuttle blowing up but rather that we found that to be a tragedy. It was a cost of doing something important and the way you honor all of those who died is to continue trying to achieve what was so important to them that they were willing to risk their lives.
I did not propose that they were villains, as I’m sure you know. They did what I would call the baseline duties of their jobs under circumstances where many or even most people would not.
However, everything isn’t moral luck. Eberling was certain the shuttle was doomed and said so—that’s enough to take it out of the hindsight bias category. It didn’t just happen that he was right–he was right. At what point wouldn’t be use hindsight bias as a mitigating factor? Let’s say he knew his boss had planted nitro on board, tried to argue him out of blowing up the shuttle, failed, and to keep his job, did nothing more? He tells his wife it’s going to blow, and it doesn’t—his boss was, unknown to him, arrested at the last moment and the threat removed. So what? Moral luck just saves the engineer from guilt, but his conduct was the same. Cowardly, wrong. I don’t see this as different. Sending the astronauts out to die, when experts had said it wasn’t safe, is criminal negligence.
I am arguing that I think his indictment of himself is unfair. Yes, he had concerns that in retrospect he framed as certainty. Even knowing what we know now, I don’t think the chance of failure was 100% under those circumstances. Guilt often makes people blame themselves out of proportion. How many parents, after something happens that was a result of reasonable risk taking, blame themselves. I am skeptical about the level of expertise here. I think if he had the level of certainty that he ascribes to himself after the fact, he might well have acted differently. What if he had went to the press, the launch had went forward and had been successful. He would have been guilty of undermining the success of a project he had worked hard on and presumably believed in, not to mention destroying his career and possibly violating contractual obligations. I just have a hard time believing that he was that certain that the seal would fail. The lesson to be learned here was that bureaucracies do not manage risk well. So, not a hero for either of them, but I don’t think I would find him a hero if he had went to the press either.
But Troy, there is no way you can say he was not exactly as certain then as he says he was now. This isn’t like after the fact regrets in, say, a baseball game, when a manager says, after he pulled his starter and the ace reliever lost the game (See: Mets, 2015 Series), when the manager says years after, “I KNEW that was a mistake.” This was science. The rings cracked in tests. What doubts? “I just have a hard time believing that he was that certain that the seal would fail.” Well, I respect that, but I respect the statement of the guys who expressed that certainty then and now a lot more, and so should you. As a general principle, you are right. In this particular case, I think you have to accept the word of the people who warned that something was too risky to risk, were certain it was too risky, saw their warning verified, and now wonder if their certainty warranted further action.
I would say that a heroic act would have been to have resigned and gone public. To take your professional opinion up the management line is a clear duty, not a heroic deed.
However, I do take issue with those who say there was no uncertainty involved. The lab is not the operational environment, indeed if the lab work is set up properly the lab should be more stringent, so in principle something can fail in the lab and work in practice, it’s just a very bad bet to make with lives at stake. Both false negatives and false positives are always possible in testing.
Below an “ethics hero” is an “ethics trouper”.
The definition for trouper being: “a reliable and uncomplaining person.”
A hero would have complained (gone to the press, damaged the plane, as you say).
Ethical Champion: One who, in the pertinent moment, leads others to make an ethical stand. In the particular social spheres Gandhi and MLK Jr. may fall here. The impact of a Champion may be less than that of a Hero. Simple social hierarchy (which I generally think is bunk) places this title above the Hero.
Ethical Hero: Your definition is fine.
Ethical Trouper: One who does their duty even in the face of intermediate pressure to give in.
Ethical Norm: A typical person who has moments of the trouper and the coward.
Ethical Coward: A “yes man” who only stands up ethically when that is the overwhelming position.
Ethical nihilist: One who doesn’t care, but unthinkingly uses the default position or other’s rationalizations in their own justifications. I think “put on your manager’s hat” would belong here.
Ethical Villian: One who exploits and justifies to their own benefit or ease, or to the benefit and ease of those they identify with. And who spreads these justifications so that others may use them.
Do you know if anyone ever thought that the actual astronauts had a right to know of these analyses? So that they could make informed decisions?
Sometimes you miss the individual trees for the bureaucratic forest. 30 years and it never occurred to me.
2019 slickwilly here.
I have been reading archives and thought to inject something here, after all commentary stopped.
Jack, in light of how Confederate symbols and statues have been treated since 2016, I am in favor of leaving a hero in the Hall, and adding commentary if necessary. Airbrushing history (someone thought it was worth an award, you in this case, and we should not second guess that) is wrong, and is being taken to extremes today. Destroying the past is bad practice, and modeling that behavior even in a blog is unethical, in my opinion.