Engineering and Ethics Evaluation of Case Study

EE 100 – Engineering and Ethics

Evaluation of Case Study (For Assignment submissions)

Please follow the steps when analyzing a case study and answer the questions in the assignments.

Step1: Describe the issues discussed in the case study.(write 1-2 paragraphs)

Step 2: Present the concepts and principles that could be applied to address those issues. (write 1-2 paragraphs)

  1. Well, the primary issues addressed were the accidents themselves, which in the case of the Challenger was caused by the design of the O-ring on the external fuel tank not being designed to handle low-temperature launches. The Columbia, however, was the result of a piece of insulation foam roughly 24 by 15 inches in size breaking off the left bipod ramp on the external fuel tank and striking the leading wing edge on the left wing leaving a hole. There are also issues present within the study of the design engineers negligence in creating safety mechanisms and the organizational acceptance of these lapses due to time and budgetary pressures.
  2. In both cases, another issue was discussed quite in depth as well, which is the corporate culture at NASA which contributed to both accidents through both normalizations of deviance as well as putting managerial obligations above safety.

Step 3: Analyze the case study using the principles. (write 1-2 paragraphs)

  1. The first concept that we have covered so far that applies I believe to be the engineer’s obligation and responsibility to safety which not only goes against the code of ethics but also the standard of care. Furthermore, this case demonstrates the concept of an organization being a morally responsible agent. This case also explores the areas of responsibility and liability for both the organization and the individuals involved. The last concept that I believe should be presented is the engineer’s obligation to follow design standards which could have greatly affected the outcome of these cases.

Step 4: Discuss your solution to resolve the ethical issue. (write 1-2 paragraphs)

  1. I will start by analyzing the Challenger accident, as I stated above this accident was the result of the O-Rings on the external fuel tank not functioning properly in cold weather. This, however, was not the only issue regarding the mechanics of the spacecraft the other major issue is the decision to build the shuttle without an escape system which could have saved the crews lives, which brings the concept of the standard of care into play. Had the engineers gone above and beyond in designing the safety systems, in particular an escape system the crew would have survived the accident because despite what most people believe none of the crew died in the explosion the crew cabin remained intact and the crew survived the descent until the crew cabin hit the ocean the impact of which actually killed the crew. As far as the Organization being morally responsible I would like to reflect on the fact that the night before the launch on a conference call discussing it the engineers advised against it because tests had been done to show the potential for failure in cold temperatures and they were told to “Take off your engineering hat andput on your management hat.”. The concerns over the launch were so high that Al McDonald refused to sign the launch authorization on behalf of Thiokol and an official in Utah ended up signing the authorization to allow the shuttle launch despite warnings. The last principle I would like to apply is the obligation to follow design standards, it was a known fact 9 years before the accident when a hydroburst test was applied that the O-rings leak despite the design expectations, it was known 6 years prior that the secondary O-Ring might not reseal should a failure in the primary O-Ring happen, after that there were at least three documented cases of scorching or erosion around the O-rings. The year before the accident there were temperature tests done on the O-Rings that showed a high rate of failure at low temperatures, despite all of these signs that the O-rings had not lived up to the design standards there was never any effort to correct the design.
  2. And now let’s move on to the Columbia accident, this time around I would like to start with the failure to follow design standards the study states “Of the 112 previous shuttle missions, there was quality imagining available for 79 of those missions. There was evidence of foam shedding in 65 of those 79 missions (82%).” Therefore there was evidence of an extremely high rate of this sort of thing happening and if we look at the design standards for this shuttle they state “The Space Shuttle System, including the ground systems, shall be designed to preclude the shedding of ice and/or other debris from the Shuttle elements during prelaunch and flight operations that would jeopardize the flight crew, vehicle, mission success, or would adversely impact turnaround operations… No debris shall emanate from the critical zone of the External Tank on the launch pad or during ascent except for such material which may result from normal thermal protection system recession due to ascent heating.” Which leads to the conclusion that the engineers knew about the problem and did nothing to correct it. Let’s discuss the problems with the organization culture and its role in this accident, NASA was under a lot of pressure at the time to finish the work on the international space station which meant in this case they were willing to risk potential disaster in order to maintain their launch schedules which they were already way behind the projected amount of launches they wanted to hit and therefore allowed the practice of “Normalization of deviance” in order to try to maintain their expected schedule. Lastly I would like to apply the concept of the obligation to safety, the piece was seen on the footage striking the wing the day after the launch happened which raised concerns for possible damage NASA instead of exploring the possibility further chose to allow the shuttle to fly the two-week mission without informing the crew even of the potential problem until just before reentry and told it was inconsequential even though no investigation took place to come to that conclusion.

Step 5: Answer the questions asked in the assignment.

  1. Resolving these issues are quite complicated to do as the main root cause is in my opinion embedded in the organizational culture which allowed the situations to develop the reason this makes it so complicated is as our textbook stated an organization’s culture can persist past key people being replaced. This is why my proposed solution involves far more than simply removing people who had roles in these accidents but instead focuses more on reshaping the culture within the organization which allowed this to happen, to start I recommend a more thorough set of safety related checks and balances which allows an outside organization to review all aspects of operation and make safety-related decisions that are not affected by internal stresses such as budgets or schedules, beyond that even I would recommend more transparency with issues relating to risk analysis as well as operational safety this additional measure will make the organization accountable to the public as well which will promote more responsibility in the areas of safety in order to protect public image and public funding.

What are the factors that contributed to each incident?

  1. Don’t forget to answer the questions asked in the assignment as they carry points.

Organizational Culture allowing for normalization of deviance and allowing managerial concerns to outweigh risk and safety concerns.

What were the similarities between the two cases? Do they reveal any common ethical issues?

Discuss the concept of blame responsibility and causation in relation to these incidents.

  1. The similarities I observed were they both involved known ongoing issues that were against design standards, and that they both involved ignoring the extra risk due to concerns over issues involving the organizational operation. So yes definitely very similar ethical issues between both cases, in both cases the NASA went against the advice of the engineers (they advised not to launch on the Challenger mission, in the Columbia mission NASA managers denied engineers access to satellite imagery to assess the damage to the wing).
  2. The blame, in my opinion, lies solely with the organization of NASA’s culture not with any of the engineers specifically. In both cases the problems with each respective shuttle component were known well in advance and the engineers had spoken up about the issues only to be dismissed in the case of the Columbia you see the engineers observations but not as much speaking out as you saw in the Challenger case, I believe this is because over the years it became more and more the corporate culture to not rock the boat and interfere with the operations schedules. This sort of thing happens within an environment where advice and opinions are regularly discarded or ignored if they have the potential to make things more difficult.


    Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases, 5th Edition.