Home > Uncategorized > The concept of responsibility in engineering as interpreted through the Challenger disaster

The concept of responsibility in engineering as interpreted through the Challenger disaster

The engineering profession is a very important one to the development of society in present times. When people think of Engineers they automatically think of problem solvers with great technical knowledge. But that is not all engineering is about. The modern day engineer must have the welfare of the society as their top priority. Engineers should always make sure that all products they produce are safe to be used by anyone and wont harm people as well as not harm the environment. These responsibilities are outlined in the Charted engineering regulations and the Engineers Ireland Code of Ethics. These Ethics are not just written documents, they are also personal Ethics and the law. Each person has their own ethics and beliefs and these carry over to their professional lives. The law is the highest part of the ethics of engineers as it has to be obeyed. A lot of the times these three sources of Engineering Ethics overlap in certain aspects.

 

In this entry I am going to use the Challenger Disaster to demonstrate the importance of responsibility in the engineering profession and the responsibilities of the engineer. On the 22nd of January 1986 NASA was supposed to launch the Challenger, due to delays on their previous mission the launch was postponed. On the 25th the launch was again postponed due to weather conditions. On the 27th the launch was a again postponed due to weather conditions and due to problems with the exterior access hatch. NASA started getting inpatient with these continuous postponements. The morning of the 28th was an unusually cold morning. On the evening of the 27th managers and engineers from the company that had produced the SRB’s and NASA discussed the weather conditions and how it may cause problems to the O-rings that are necessary for the SRB’s to work and thus for the Challenger to work. Managers and engineers from Morton Thiokol said that they didn’t have enough evidence that the O-Rings would hold up at the forecasted temperatures. NASA said that because there were back up O-Rings in place they would be ok if the first ones failed, this was never proven or even tested. Engineers from Rockwell International, the prime contractor for the shuttle also expressed concerns over the temperature. Because of possible financial burdens to both companies their engineers were over ruled by higher management and they both gave the go ahead for the launch on the 28th at unproven conditions. On the 28th of January 1986 at 11:38 eastern time the Challenger was launched after being cleared of ice that morning. 73 seconds after the launch the shuttle started to disintegrate. The two SRB’s didn’t disintegrate and were detonated as they may have been a treat to land. The crew cabin also withstood the disintegration but none of the crew survived dyeing from either loss of pressure in the cabin or from the impact of the cabin with the water which was close to 20G.

 

The Challenger disaster is a great example of the responsibilities of the engineer. Engineers are given privileges and they have responsibilities due to those privileges. In the Challenger launch engineers had crucial decisions to make. Those decisions should have been made according to the engineering ethics and taking their responsibilities to the community into account.

 

On the evening  of the 27th and the morning of the 28th of January 1986 Engineers and management of all 3 companies involved in this launch made decisions that cost us more than just money, the lives of 7 people. Engineers form Morton Thiokol made their feelings known about the performance of the O-Rings in the kind of weather that was expected for the launch. The Morton Thiokol engineers felt that there was not enough evidence that the O-Rings would work at the kind of temperatures expected thus the engineers recommended that the launch did not go ahead.Engineers form Rockwell International also expressed their concerns with the lack of data to assure them that the O-Rings would function properly. They also had concerns over the amount of ice that had built up around the shuttle. Engineers from Rockwell also recommended that the launch did not take place at the conditions but again were over ruled by higher management. The decisions By higher management in both companies were purely financial decisions. Both companies were afraid of financial burdens from NASA if they weren’t given the go ahead for the launch. NASA engineers and management were also aware of the condition of with the O-Rings. they also had a decision to make knowing that the O-Rings could have failed because of the temperature at launch. The NASA engineers decided that because there were backup O-rings. This should have never been the case since the O-Rings were criticality 1 components and according to NASA regulations “it is forbidden to rely on a backup for a Criticality 1 component ”. NASA’s rezoning for the decision unlike the other two companies was not completely financial,  it had more to do with the impatience as they had delayed the launch a few times already and this was damaging the image of the company.

 

No matter what the reason the companies used to decide to ignore their engineers and statistics they had on the O-Ring’s performance it was not an ethical decision and it  the people who made the decision ignored their responsibilities to the society. The Institution of Engineers of Ireland’s Code of Ethics states:

“At all times in their relations with the public, Members shall apply their
skill and experience to the common good and the advancement of human
welfare with proper regard for the safety, health and welfare of the public.
A Member shall not engage in any activity which he/she knows or has
reasonable grounds for believing is likely to result in a serious detriment
to any person or persons” 

In this situation engineers and managers of all three companies ignored the code of ethics as they didn’t place the safety and welfare of society and especially the 7 people that were in the shuttle ahead of their own needs and wants. The unethical decision made by those few people cost us the lives of 7 people.      

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