Because of non-ethical matters in the Marshall household, I missed posting about the January 28 anniversary of the Challenger disaster, as it is labeled among the thousands of Ethics Alarms tags. I have written about and alluded to the completely avoidable explosion of the Space Shuttle in 1986 many times (you can check here), and there may be no other incident that so perfectly encapsulates the complexities of professional ethics, especially in a bureaucracy. In 2016, I offered an ethics quiz on the topic.
In 2020, Netflix presented an excellent, if extremely upsetting, docudrama on how the fiasco unfolded, “The Challenger Disaster.”
I have used the tragedy in my legal ethics continuing legal education courses to force attendees to consider what might make them decide to breach legal ethics and place their careers at risk when an organizational client is hell-bent on what the lawyer knows, or thinks he or she knows, will be disastrous. Legal ethics rules are different from engineering ethics, though the latter has caught up considerably since the Space Shuttle explosion, and in part because of it. However, I view the ethics conflict in parallel situations in both professions the same, as well as situations in medicine, organized religion, the military, and government. When would, and should, professionals decide to do everything in their power to stop the consequences of a terrible decision when it is outside their role and authority to do so?
In my legal ethics seminars, a majority of lawyers ultimately say they would have done “whatever it took” to stop the Challenger’s launch, whatever the consequences, if they knew what the engineers knew. They said they would go to the news media, or chain themselves to the rocket if necessary. Of course, saying it and doing it are very different things.
Here is the most recent incarnation of my Challenger disaster legal ethics question, which I presented to government lawyers a year ago. What would you answer? It is called “The Launch.”
In 1986, Roger Boisjoly was a booster rocket engineer at Morton Thiokol, the NASA contractor that, infamously, manufactured the faulty O-ring that was installed in the Space Shuttle Challenger, and that caused it to explode. 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 sending the Shuttle into space at low temperatures was too risky. On January 27, 1986, the day before the scheduled launch of the Challenger, Boisjoly 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. Another engineer, Bob Ebeling, joined Boisjoly and begged for the launch to be postponed, only to be overruled.
That night, Ebeling told his wife, Darlene, “It’s going to blow up.”
Question 1: Should one or both of the engineers have “blown the whistle”?
- They did.
- Only the engineer who was sure that it would be a disaster.
- No, that’s not their role, their decision, or their call.
- After the explosion, but not before.
- I have another answer.
Question 2: How are the ethical obligations in such a situation different for government lawyers than engineers?
- Government lawyers have to disclose when human life is threatened, engineers don’t.
- Engineers have to disclose when human life is involved, government lawyers don’t.
- Lawyers get kicked out of their profession for blowing whistles, engineers just get blackballed.
- There is no difference.
- I have another answer.