Ethics Quiz: Second Thoughts About An Ethics Hero Emeritus

challenger-shuttle-disaster-crew

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?

Continue reading

Debate Questions No Democrat Will Ever Be Asked (1): “You and President Obama Claim That Climate Change Is Settled Science To The Extent That The United States Should Burden Industry With Expensive And Job Threatening Mandates To Curb It. Explain Your Certitude On This Despite NASA’s Discovery That Antarctica Is Actually Gaining Ice?”

antarctica

The recent report from NASA regarding increasing levels of ice in Antarctica shows beyond any reasonable doubt that climate science is not “settled.” Any scientist who says so is playing politics,  lying, or both; any politician who says so is not very bright or lying. If the science were settled, NASA, whose leadership has crossed many lines of honesty and objectivity by over-hyping climate change research, would not publish studies whose authors have explain them by saying  things like this, from Jay Zwally, NASA glaciologist and lead author of the study:

…”The good news is that Antarctica is not currently contributing to sea level rise, but is taking 0.23 millimeters per year away But this is also bad news. If the 0.27 millimeters per year of sea level rise attributed to Antarctica in the IPCC report is not really coming from Antarctica, there must be some other contribution to sea level rise that is not accounted for.”

…In noting that it could take only a few decades for the ice melt in Antarctica to outweigh the ice gains: “I don’t think there will be enough snowfall increase to offset these losses.”

…“We’re essentially in agreement with other studies that show an increase in ice discharge. Our main disagreement is for East Antarctica and the interior of West Antarctica; there, we see an ice gain that exceeds the losses in the other areas.”

Does that sound “settled” to you? Continue reading

Moonwalk Ethics: One Small Word

Neil-Armstrong-on-the-Moon-in-1969July 20 will be the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, a day of achievement, hope and pride for Americans that seems very long ago and far away in the bleak cynicism of 2014. As I was pondering how to note the landmark in an ethics context, I remembered a section of a post on the Ethics Scoreboard that dealt with the controversy surrounding Armstrong’s famous quote upon placing his foot on the moon’s surface. Here it is, my earliest foray into what has become a frequent theme on Ethics Alarms, “print the legend”  ethics:

“When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.”

This cynical endorsement of our culture’s preference for soothing fantasy over harsh historical truth was the intentionally disturbing message of John Ford’s film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” But rejecting Ford’s grizzled old newspaper editor’s warped ethic does not justify the equally objectionable modern practice of using spurious logic to substitute one dubious historical account for another. Even more ethically suspect is the common practice of replacing an accepted, well-supported version of an historical event with a “new improved” version that exists less because of its accuracy than because of its advocates’ biases….

An Australian computer programmer says he has discovered that Neil Armstrong’s first words after he stepped onto the moon in 1969, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” were misquoted by NASA, misheard by millions of listeners around the world, and printed incorrectly in the history books. For decades, wags have criticized Armstrong for botching his iconic moment, since “man” and “mankind” mean the same thing, so the literal meaning of his famous words would be “One small step for man, one giant leap for man.” Armstrong has sometimes grudgingly acknowledged his gaffe and at other times maintained that he thought he included the elusive “a.” He hasn’t fought the consensus verdict very vigorously, as represented by NASA’a transcript:

109:24:48 Armstrong: That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind. (Long Pause)… Continue reading

Horrible Thought: The Last Unethical Act Ever?

Asteroid coming

From antic conservative talk radio host Chris Plante comes this horrible thought, just expressed on his morning show in Washington D.C. :

How do we know NASA,  in the grand tradition of former official Jon Harpold–quoted as arguing in 2003 that if their flight were doomed by an unrepairable  heat shield flaw, the astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia shouldn’t be told of their certain deaths and be allowed to burn up upon re-entry, quickly and humanely— isn’t lying to us about today’s near-miss with an asteroid?

“Maybe the Obama Administration, in its infinite wisdom, has determined that it’s best that we not know the the truth, which is that the asteroid is going to hit the Earth and we’re all going to die,” Plante said.

Oh-oh.

For the record, if true, this is completely unethical.

I thought you should know.

Thanks for everything.

UPDATE: Whew!

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Spark: Chris Plante

Graphic: Oh, what the hell difference does it make now? I’m headed to Boston to say goodbye to Fenway Park.

Unethical Quote of the Week: Former NASA Official Jon Harpold

“Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done until the air ran out?”

—–Space Shuttle Columbia mission operations chief Jon Harpold in 2003, talking about the Shuttle crew then in flight, as quoted by former NASA flight director Wayne Hale on his blog this week. Harpold was musing on a hypothetical situation (he thought) where NASA had determined that the Shuttle couldn’t safely return to Earth.

Columbia crew

Days before Columbia disintegrated on re-entry due to a damaged heat shield, NASA officials met to determine whether Columbia was safe to land despite some damage after takeoff. They decided, wrongly, as it turned out, that the Shuttle was safe. In the course of the meeting, Jon Harpold raised the hypothetical dilemma of a doomed Shuttle and an unaware crew.

Hale tells the story to make the point that NASA’s culture at the time was organizationally and ethically flawed. I agree.

Harpold’s position is kind but monstrous. It presumes to withhold the truth from those most effected by it, on the theory that it is better to die suddenly and unexpectedly than to have the opportunity to fight and strive to the end to solve what might be an impossible problem. Nobody should feel that he has the right to make that decision, to give up on life itself, for another who still has the capacity to think and act. This is disrespect for the values of personal liberty and autonomy, both much in the public mind today.

We each must have the right to make our own decisions about our fates, and must always have the information we need to make those decisions as wisely as we can. Those who fear the truth have insufficient reverence for it. Even the worst information may contain the seeds of victory.

I’m not going gentle into that good night, and damn anyone who tries to trick me into doing so out of misplaced kindness.

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Facts: Kansas City Star

Graphic: KCNTV

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

Ethics Hero Emeritus: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012)

Roger Boisjoly’s death was originally just reported locally when he died in Utah last month at the age of 73. Only now is the media reminding the public of Boisjoly’s life, his tragic role in a national tragedy, and how he tried and failed to avert it.

In 1986, 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 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. Continue reading