Reading 05 — Engineering Disasters and Whistleblowing

From the readings, what were the root causes of the Challenger disaster? Was Roger Boisjoly ethical in sharing information with the public? Was his company justified in retaliating against him? What good is whistleblowing if “[i]t destroy[s] [your] career, [your] life, everything else”?

The Challenger disaster had two main root causes, the technical root and the social/power ladder root. The technical root was the failure of the O rings at low temperatures. The O-rings had not been tested at a large range of temperatures, no temperatures that were low at least. This made the scientists and engineers think that there were suitable or did not have a big enough risk and continued to use it for all the operations. At low temperatures, the O-rings became “brittle and useless.” (Alex Pasternack, Motherboard.vice.com) This could have been prevented if the engineers had felt a reason to test this and see what happened to the O-rings as they sit in low temperatures. The day before the launch there had been some warnings about the performance of the O-rings but given it was the day before the launch nobody wanted to spend more time on it than they had to.

The social/power root of the Challenger disaster was that nobody did anything even after the risk warning about the O-rings. When Roger Boisjoly, warned Thiokol about the potential failure of the O-rings and what that implied in response to the rest of the aircraft, Thiokol decided it wasn’t enough of a risk because they didn’t have any data that would go for or against it. In Alex Pasternack’s article, he talks about how everything had a hierarchy and that no matter who started to warn about the O-rings when it came to the higher powers or the people who had the power to actually postpone the launch or do something about it they decided not to do so. The amount of people that had to think and agree about the potential threat was too large and many of those did not think their input would be important enough. I think that right up to the launch, people were tired of working on the same thing and needed to give examples or proof that their work was worth it. This was no longer in the name of science but it was to prove that the space program was necessary. I can see why people didn’t want to admit that there was a problem, it would have extended the research and it would have made people angry because they would not have met the proposed deadline. But then again, is it better to meet the deadline and be absolutely sure your spacecraft will not blow up or to meet the deadline and have some “flight risks” that are really high?

Roger Boisjoly was in the right to share all the information to the public. He felt the need for people to see what had happened and that if not one person to blame but to show that the system was to blame. He felt the need to warn the team about the potential failure of the O-rings and he wanted to postpone the launch until it was completely proven that it was correct but regardless of his attempts everything still went through. Unfortunately, he was right about the detrimental cost of the failure of the O-rings. After everything happened, he felt the need to share everything and I think it was ethical for him to do so. If I was a family member of the ones in side the shuttle I would want some proof of what went wrong, it would make me angry that they did not do anything about it but it would make me feel better to know that there is something to blame. As to the actions his company took against him, I think they were to be expected. What he was doing is exposing the fact that the company knew that there was a risk with the O-rings at low temperatures, and they had to change their speech from “We didn’t know they would fail at low temperatures” to “We knew it was a risk but deemed it a not big enough risk”. This second speech is something that more people would be willing to say that is incorrect and that would upset more people. However, I do not think it was correct for them to completely destroy Boisjoly’s career over something he believed was right and that at the end the company did not really loose much.

Sometimes things have a bigger effect in the world and there are causes that are bigger than just a career. Yes, its hard to admit that sometimes that we are going to loose everything by telling the truth or warning somebody of some wrong doings. If you believe what you are warning about is bigger or more important than most things then being a whistleblower is justified. You need to do the right thing, specially what you are warning people about is going to do a greater good than what the evil thing would do.

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