Ethical And Managerial Issues In The NASA Space Shuttle Program Essay

Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis and S. Christa McAuliffe were the seven crew members aboard the challenger on the tragic day of January 28th 1986- a day that later called into question many organizational issues within NASA and managerial issues within the space shuttle program. Besides being recognized as the first mission to include a civilian astronaut, It is safe to say that the challenger shuttle disaster marked the reorganization of the space shuttle program and reinvented space travel in the U. S entirely.

Lawrence Mulloy was one of the directors for the NASA space shuttle program and after nine previous missions, he was extremely enthusiastic about launching the challenger yet again for the purpose of advancing the study of astronomy. “The challenger was preparing for its tenth mission to deploy the second in a series of Tracking and Data Relay Satellites, carry out the first flight of the Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy (SPARTAN-203) / Halley’s Comet Experiment Deployable in order to observe Halley’s Comet, and carry out several lessons in space as part of the teacher in space program.

The shuttle was originally supposed to launch January 20th 1986 but was delayed several times due to technical problems and bad weather”. After being postponed for the first time, Mulloy and other NASA officials became anxious, wanting to launch the shuttle as soon as possible. However, technical issues regarding the spaceships “O-ring” seal in the solid-fuel rocket suggested that the launch should be postponed yet again. In an effort to continue with the launch as planned Mulloy and NASA officials pushed for the hasty mitigation of the “O-ring” issue.

In compliance with Mulloy’s request, Morton Thoikol engineers continued attempting to fix the “O-ring”, although shortly after stating that the O-ring was being asked to “perform beyond its intended design”. Despite multiple warnings, the issue was never fully resolved and out of 19 flights, 9 had experienced some degree of erosion on the O-ring seals. “Instead of requesting an investigation, NASA Management ignored the problem and chose instead to increase the tolerance”. “Each O-ring had a backup O-ring in place, it was assumed that any failure would not cause any problems because it would be unlikely for the backups to fail as well.

However, because this component is so critical, the backups were in place solely for redundancy, not to act as the primary part”. The O-rings were not as tolerant as previously thought and Morton Thoikol engineer, Roger Boisjoly confessed his concerns for the successful launch of the challenger during a press conference stating, “it is my honest and very real fear, that if we do not take immediate action to dedicate a team to solve the problem, then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities”.

Ignoring his plea to delay the launch of the challenger, the spacecraft was scheduled to launch as planned, once again. However, the challenger spacecraft faced yet another issue and the night before the launch, projected weather suggested unseasonably cold temperatures and after several postponements NASA and shuttle program directors did not have any intentions to delay the launch any further. “Later that night Thoikol engineering and the Kennedy Space Center set up a conference call to discuss the likely effects the projected weather would have on the conditions of the O-ring seals”.

In one final attempt to postpone the flight, Roger Boisjoly suggests that the O-rings are more than likely to fail during flight due to the cold weather. He adamantly pleaded that NASA postpone the launch and fly at the safest temperature of 53 degrees. Nonchalant, Mulloy responds to his request, saying “My God, Thiokol, When do you want me to launch — next April? ”. Facing the pressures of launching the following day Mulloy and other NASA officials were then faced with an ethical dilemma.

Stay on schedule or risk the lives of the crew members to achieve a successful mission? To stay on schedule and successfully complete the mission would deliver valuable information that can be used to further expand the space shuttle program. It also would possibly mean continuing the teach in space program, whose purposes was to encourage community funding of space shuttle expeditions. If a small malfunction occurs, it can be a learning experience for NASA and the issue would be fixed for future deployments.

However, unsuccessfully launching the challenge posed a greater threat, not only would lives be lost, but NASA would not gain any new information about space travel and satellite surveillance. Lawrence Mulloy and other NASA officials who discussed the issue briefly for a final time determined the risk of O-ring failure to be minimal and they planned once again to move forward with the launch. On January 28th, 1986 unaware of the difficulties the challenger had been experiencing the flight crew boarded the aircraft excited for their journey into space.

Little did they know, they would be heading toward their doomed fate. “The Challenger shuttle crew, of seven astronauts — including the specialties of pilot, aerospace engineers, and scientists– died tragically in the explosion of their spacecraft during the launch of STS-51-L from the Kennedy Space Center about 11:40 a. m. The explosion occurred 73 seconds into the flight as a result of a leak in one of two Solid Rocket Boosters that ignited the main liquid fuel tank”.

Devastated by the disaster, the President Reagan immediately ordered the investigation of the aircraft tragedy which was headed by the Rogers commission. After months of investigation it had been concluded that the failure of the “O-ring” seal on the right side of the rocket booster had been the root cause of the explosion. “Tests conducted during the Rogers Commission investigation showed that O-rings were much less resilient at lower temperatures. As a result, they would not be able to expand along with the Solid Rocket Boosters case motion, and may not seal the joint properly.

This is what happened with the sub-freezing O-rings in Challenger’s right Solid Rocket Boosters aft field joint”. Lawrence Mulloy’s inaction to resolve, and blatant ignorance to faulty manufacturing cost the lives of several people aboard the challenger space shuttle. “Challenger’s explosion changed the space shuttle program in several ways. Plans to fly other civilians in space (such as journalists) were shelved for 22 years, until Barbara Morgan, who was McAuliffe’s backup, flew aboard Endeavour in 2007. Satellite launches were shifted from the shuttle to reusable rockets.

Additionally, astronauts were pulled off of duties such as repairing satellites, and the Manned Maneuvering Unit was not flown again, to better preserve their safety”. There are many different approaches that Lawrence Mulloy, NASA and the Morton Thoikol engineering firm, could have taken to avoid such a terrible disaster. The engineering firm was a victim of groupthink and conformity, and because the challenger expedition was such a significant project that needed such a large task force it is easy to assume that social pressures to reach a prime consensus played a crucial role in decision making.

In a situation like this, compliance can easily become the dominant response amongst a group of individuals who do not have a strong leader. To minimize the groupthink and conformity amongst the engineers management should have “fostered open discussion and encouraged their team members to always contribute their thoughts, ideas, and opinions”. Doing so could have elicited vigorous group discussion and accurate consideration of both the costs and benefits of launching the challenger.

Furthermore NASA and Lawrence Mulloy, should have approached the challenger using a different form of leadership. Using a democratic leadership style would have been the most beneficial in avoiding the challenger crisis. This type of leadership involves active communication both upward and downward in the chain of command, it allows for the valued contribution of subordinated in making critical decisions. Operating in fairness, intelligence, moral courage and honesty would have limited the role of just one group or person- equalizing the role responsibility amongst the task force.

Lastly, NASA and program management should have ultimately listened to the engineer’s concerns. If someone on the task force is giving you their expert opinion not once, or twice but several times and warned you about the possible outcome of continuing with the risk, it is definitely worth considering. On multiple occasions, program management disregarded the forewarning giving to them by the Morton Thoikol firm which showed there was a lack of proper management. In the end, the Roger commission found NASA and contractor managers at fault for the disaster.

To conclude, the misguided leadership in combination with a hasty decision to launch the Challenger spacecraft under unfit weather conditions and insecure safety measures resulted in the death of several astronauts. However the situation could have been avoided had proper communication and the dismantling of groupthink and conformity within the task force had been practiced. Following the disaster, the space shuttle program was suspended for over two years in order to make safety changes recommended by the Rogers Commissioned Report.

Safety changes included the redesign of the SRB joint, an escape system for use, improved landing gear and pressure suits for astronauts. The shuttle program continued with the successful launch of Discovery in 1988. The program ran smoothly for seventeen years until space shuttle Columbia broke apart on reentry, killing all seven crew members. The final Space Shuttle launch of the program was that of Atlantis on July 8, 2011. Today, In remembrance of the tragic inciden t the families of the victims funded the challenger space center designed to encourage the exploration and education of space science amongst youth.