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: