Launching Into Unethical Behavior: Lessons from the Challenger Disaster

Author: By Bazerman

The 25th and last flight of the shuttle Endeavour has come and gone. Which means there’s just one shuttle flight left: July 8's Atlantis launch will be the 135th and final mission for the program, 30 years after the first shuttle test flights occurred.

For anyone who was around on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, it’s difficult to watch a shuttle launch without remembering  the Challenger disaster, when the space shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members. While the most commonly referenced explanation for what went wrong focuses on the technological failures associated with the O-rings, an examination of the decision process that led to the launch through a modern day “behavioral ethics” lens illuminates a much more complicated, and troubling, picture. One that can help us avoid future ethical disasters.

On the night before the Challenger was set to launch, a group of NASA engineers and managers met with the shuttle contracting firm Morton Thiokol to discuss the safety of launching the shuttle given the low temperatures that were forecasted for the day of the launch. The engineers at Morton Thiokol noted problems with O-rings in 7 of the past 24 shuttle launches and noted a connection between low temperatures and O-ring problems. Based on this data, they recommended to their superiors and to NASA personnel that the shuttle should not be launched.

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