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.
1. While I’m thinking about Republican Senators (as in the previous post)... A new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll indicates that a majority of Iowans,though only a third of Iowa Republicans, say they hope U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) decides not to seek reelection in 2022. For Democrats, this may be another example of having the right opinion for the wrong reasons: they might just think with Grassley out of the way, they have a better chance of replacing him with a Democrat. But the man is 87 years old. It was unethical for him to run for re-election the last time, in 2016. Is Grassley really going to tell voters that he expects to be fully alert, competent, healthy and alive until he’s 93?
Grassley needs to watch videos of Sen. Strom Thurmond in his waning years. This is an ethics test for him, and it shouldn’t be a difficult one.
2. Update: Yesterday I told a friend, ethicist and Georgetown Law Center grad about the Sandra Sellers mess, and his immediately reaction was, “So they fired her for telling the truth?” Yet many law school alums signed the petition to have her canned for “racism.”
If they don’t know that being admitted with lower credentials means that any group—including the children of big donors— will tend to settle at the bottom of the class, then a lot of Georgetown Law Center grads are either not as smart as they need to be to practice law competently, or not honest enough to practice law ethically.
A quote in an obituary for long-time NASA chief James Beggs, who died this week at the age of 94, shocked me into realizing once again how alien basic ethics have become to our leaders in business, government, politics…hell, just about anywhere. And once again, I’m wondering what good I’m doing, and why I bother.
Beggs had overseen more than 20 successful space shuttle launches, but he was on administrative leave due to an investigation of his conduct when the Challenger launched and exploded in 1986. As we have discussed on Ethics Alarms, a landmark example of failed ethics and decision-making caused the temporary leadership of NASA to ignore dire warnings from two engineers and send the shuttle and its precious human cargo up in dangerously cold weather. Indeed Beggs called NASA from his exile that fateful day to express his concern about icing. He resigned from NASA in 1986, about a month after the Challenger disaster.
Beggs was reluctant to criticize his former agency’s culpability in the accident, but he was adamant that “they shouldn’t have launched.” “Whether I would have done anything different at the time, I’ve thought about that,” he said. “I think I would have, but that’s pure conjecture.”
Remarkable. How often does a critic of a past decision have the intrinsic fairness and integrity to say that? The Wuhan virus landscape has been polluted by extravagant and unjust second-guessing from the start, as everyone from politicians to pundits to plumbers are just certain that they would have known how to handle an unprecedented situation with significant unknown factors and substantial risk. They would have reached a different, quicker,better approach than the individual who actually had to make the call.
It’s a disgusting spectacle, and an unethical one. The “right” decision can always be made to seem obvious after the fact; critics cannot possibly know what their state of mind would have been at the actual time the decision had to be made by someone else. Beggs’ acknowledgement of that, in a situation where he could have credibly second-guessed his colleagues without equivocation, demonstrates the character of a decent and ethical professional determined to do and say the right thing even when opportunities are present for personal gain.
That story, in turn, reminded me of…Wendell Willkie. Continue reading
U.S. Presidents are leaders of their parties, but that is only one role among many that the U.S. Presidency has evolved to serve. There are times when it is crucial for the President to be seen as the symbol of the nation and the representative of all Americans, whether some Americans are able to concede that fact, or not. Some of the greatest Presidential speeches were inspired by national tragedies, as a Chief Executive was forced by events to serve as “Comforter-in- Chief,” and to to set aside partisanship in times of tragedy to speak words that remind us that, despite what may be passionate differences, we are all Americans.
No President was better qualified by his experience and talents to fulfull this role than Ronald Reagan, after we all watched the Space Shuttle Challenger launch and then explode into pieces on that beautiful, cloudless day.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering.
Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.
Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together. Continue reading
…As I prep for a CLE road trip…
1. I finally saw “Doubt,” the film adaptation of the John Patrick Shanley stage drama about a parish priest suspected of child abuse. It’s an ethics film, and unlike many ethics films, made a profit at the box office.
I had seen the play on stage, and found it didactic and contrived; the film did not, I’m sure because the cast was so excellent. Meryl Streep, Viola Davis and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the priest were all wonderful, especially Davis, whose single scene in which she runs down a series of desperate arguments and rationalizations to justify allowing her son to be molested—maybe—is an ethics cornucopia. Unlike the stage production I saw, the movie benefits by having its protagonists appear less sympathetic than its apparent villain.
This goes on the ethics movie list, which is due for an update.
2. Yet another ethics movie of more recent vintage is 2019’s “The Challenger Disaster,” a fictionalized recounting of how the decision was made to allow the doomed space shuttle to launch despite the warnings of Morton Thiokol engineers. I wrote about this depressing ethics case study here , in a tribute to the primary Cassandra in the tragedy, Roger Boisjoly, and here, about his troubled colleague, Bob Ebeling. The film’s hero appears to be an amalgam of the two. Here is an excerpt from a review on The Engineering Ethics Blog:
Even if you are pretty familiar with the basics of the story, as I was, the film is almost agonizing to watch as the launch time draws closer….The focus is always on Adam [the fictional hybrid of the engineers opposing the launch]: his belief going in that the truth is always a sufficient argument (it’s not, as it turns out), his doubts that he’s done enough to stop the launch, and his retrospective descriptions of what went on in the hours leading up to the launch…. the generally underlit atmosphere symbolizes Adam’s darkening mood as the critical conference call comes and goes, and the decision is made to launch. After Adam drives home that evening, he just sits out in the driveway in his car until his wife comes and gets into the seat beside him. …Later, during the hearings that Adam and his fellow engineers attend, they come forward out of the audience and interrupt the proceedings after they hear a Morton-Thiokol manager lie about his knowledge of the seal problem. After the hearing, a sympathetic commission member finds Adam and reassures him that there are whistleblowing laws to protect him from repercussions of his testimony.
While it is never good to kick a man while he is down, I wish the film had taken time to show in more detail the intensity of the ostracism that forced the real-life Boisjoly to resign from Morton-Thiokol after his participation in the hearings made him persona non grata at work. … Boisjoly made a new career out of giving talks to engineering students about his experiences. …For a complex, historically accurate, and thought-provoking take on the Challenger disaster, I cannot think of a better medium than “The Challenger Disaster” for conveying the seriousness of the emotion-laden decisions that have to be made at critical times. It is not a fun movie, but it’s a good one. And I hope it does well in video-on-demand release, because engineers need to see it.
Also lawyers, doctors, corporate executives, military officers, government officials, journalists, students… Continue reading
Major League Baseball is still buzzing about the shocking half-season suspension of Seattle Mariners second baseman Robbie Cano, which I wrote about here. Among the more unethical buzzes were the comments from former New York Yankee star Mark Teixeira, now a baseball analyst for ESPN, who played with Cano before he left the Yankees as a free agent. Asked about Cano’s testing positive for an agent used to mask steroid use, Teixeira said,
“Yeah, I don’t really want to get into too much detail. I love Robbie. I’m just not surprised. I don’t really want to go too much further, but I think a lot of people are kind of saying the same thing….Let’s just use this situation here. Robbie Cano’s assistant was on the list for Biogenesis. [Biogenesis was the sports medicine clinic involved MLB’s 2013 PED scandal that resulted in the suspensions of 14 players, including Yankee superstar Alex Rodriquez and former National League MVP Ryan Braun.] Now, of course, [Cano] had an assistant, you know, buy stuff for him. Alex Rodriguez got popped by Biogenesis, and [former Yankees outfielder] Melky [Cabrera] got popped. They were best friends. When someone gets lumped into that group, it’s because there’s evidence. There’s a paper trail. There’s a smoke trail.”
Foul. Continue reading
I never thought I would have occasion to place the term “Ethics Hero” anywhere near Ted Cruz’s name. Ted understands ethics (unlike Donald Trump), he just discards them at will, when an end he lusts for requires an unethical means. Last night, however, Cruz brushed up against ethics heroism. He took the podium at the Republican National Convention in prime time, and directed principled conservatives and Republicans not to vote for Donald Trump, though not in so many words. It took character, it took courage, and his message was the right one.
The Texas Senator and last Trump challenger standing congratulated Trump for winning the Republican nomination, but never endorsed him. Then he closed by telling convention-goers and TV viewers to “vote your conscience” in November. The convention throng of Trump supporters erupted in jeers, as Cruz had to know they would, and Trump felt he had to appear on the floor to pull focus from his intransigent foe. Today on Fox News, the Fox Blondes and their harassers were slamming Cruz as a traitor and a fool.
Yeah, that was how the collaborators talked about De Gaulle in France during the occupation, too. Continue reading
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: