The Eighth Post

One of the root causes of the Challenger disaster was a faulty O-ring.  The O-rings that sealed a joint on the right solid rocket booster had grown brittle and useless.  When this rubber ring was useless, the external fuel tank did not have a constant pressure.  As Commander Dick Scobee increased the throttle of the Shuttle, another crew member realized that something was wrong and the cockpit recorder captured his voice saying “Uh oh.”

Another cause of the disaster was the pressure that NASA was putting on the executives from Morton Thiokol.  Boisjoly and his engineering colleagues did not approve the launch, but the executives at Morton Thiokol overruled this recommendation and told NASA that the Challenger was approved to launch. Allan McDonald, an engineer at Morton Thiokol, refused to sign the “Launch Rationale” document, which was “the smartest thing [he] ever did in [his] lifetime.”

One of the final causes of the disaster was NASA’s commitment to keeping a schedule and proving the program’s worth rather than gathering data about risks and responding accordingly to those risks.  At this time, it was argued that the Shuttle was “more of a promotional and propaganda and military tool than a platform for science.”

Boisjoly sharing the information about the launch is completely ethical and justified.  He shared the information in the presidential commission, which is an approved channel.  Boisjoly also shared the information with an NPR reporter (unapproved channel), but requested anonymity and the information did not make it to the public.  This resulted in Boisjoly not being a whistleblower.  Boisjoly’s sharing of the information is completely justified because he was doing the right thing through the whole process. If the information would have become public through the NPR channel, then Boisjoly would be considered a real whistleblower because the information would have been shared through an unapproved channel.

His company was not justified in retaliating against Boisjoly.  Morton Thiokol was extremely aggravated when Boisjoly handed in his documentation and during Boisjoly’s testimony.  Boisjoly publicly refuted “a manager’s assertion that Thiokol engineers weren’t unanimous in recommending that the launch be cancelled.”  This scenario set the worst precedent for future problems in this industry.  Boisjoly was doing the right thing when he recommended not to launch.  Boisjoly was also doing the right thing by cooperating with the presidential commission. Morton Thiokol decides that he was a whistleblower and starts to assign Boisjoly to work that doesn’t involve space. NASA attempted to remove him from the industry completely.  Boisjoly eventually took long-term diasbility leave for PTSD.

Morton Thiokol’s actions are consistent among other industries also. In “How Challenger Exploded, and Other Mistakes Were Made” by Alex Pasternack, he mentions that workers at GM who spoke up about the faulty ignition switches were “shunned.”  Pasternack also makes the point when “organizations know about risks, some will go out of their way to hide them and fight the people who expose them.”

Whistleblowing isn’t ethical, but the intentions of whistleblowing are typically good.  In the case of the Challenger, Boisjoly is “whistleblowing” because he tried to prevent a disaster, but the company didn’t listen to him.  A benefit of whistleblowing is that it keeps your conscience clear.  Although this is not the most satisfying reason to be a whistleblower, it is the best reason.  I plan on having a family someday and I will want to set a good example.  I wouldn’t be a whistleblower but if a project I was working on was not correct, I would go through approved channels to get it worked out.  This would be a good example of being truthful and honest.

Something that needs to be changed in the whole industrial industry is that saying something when a project is not working correctly isn’t a bad thing, it is a truthful and honest act.  There is nothing wrong in delaying a project by a few weeks/months/years in order to get the correct result. Especially when this delay will prevent someone from dying.



Image courtesy of tongdang at


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