More Questions and Alternative Scenarios for the
astronauts aboard died, and the shuttle was grounded until it could fly safely.
The explosion resulted from the failure of O-rings to seal in the booster rocket
joints, apparently because of unusually low temperatures that day in Florida.
The catastrophe is also remembered as a classic example of alleged retribution
against whistleblowers by their employer-Morton
Thiokol, Inc., maker of
the shuttle's booster rockets. Some Thiokol employees were critical of the
company and of NASA in their testimony before the presidential commission
investigating the accident, and they believed that they were punished as a
result. Most notable among these individuals was Roger Boisjoly, an engineer
who for several months had voiced concerns about the O-rings and whose
warnings against launching Challenger were ignored.
For a year before the Challenger explosion, Boisjoly conducted research into
concerns that low temperatures could compromise critical joints and seals in
the shuttle's booster rockets. He advised his superiors about his concerns, but
they did not view the matter with the same degree of urgency. On the evening
before the Challenger liftoff, Boisjoly and other engineers opposed the launch
because of the low temperature. After NASA officials objected, Thiokol senior
managers overruled the engineers and authorized the flight. After the disaster,
Boisjoly was initially placed on the investigating team. But after testifying
before the Rogers Commission about the disagreement over launching the
shuttle, his position was changed and he was isolated from NASA and the effort
to redesign the seal. After the commission chairman criticized the company for
what appeared to be punishment of Boisjoly and Allan McDonald, another
engineer whose testimony was critical of Thiokol and NASA, both men were
given their jobs back. A couple of months later, however, Boisjoly left Thiokol
on extended sick leave .•
1. It is generally conceded that the Thiokol engineers did what they could to
prevent the Challenger launch. But did they? In view of what was at stake, did
they have a moral responsibility to do more? What more could they have done?
2. Consider the following scenario: After the engineers are overruled,
Boisjoly calls a major television news reporter and goes public with his concerns. The story is aired, the flight is stopped, and Boisjoly is eventually eased
out of the company. How do you assess the moral character of Boisjoly's
actions? Are there conditions under which a whistleblower has a moral obligation to publicize a matter outside company channels? Even ifhis or her job will
be at risk?
3. Imagine that when the reporter checks with an engineer at NASA, she is
told that Boisjoly is absolutely wrong and that the risk is minimal. Not having
enough time to check out the facts, the reporter chooses to kill the story and
tells Boisjoly of her decision. Boisjoly then calls another reporter and anonymously claims that a terrorist group has planted a bomb on the shuttle. As a
rocket engineer, Boisjoly is able to convince the reporter that the threat is
genuine. The story runs, the flight is postponed, and the shuttle launches
safely on a warmer day. The original reporter never reveals that Boisjoly called
her, and Boisjoly keeps his job. Assess the moral character ofBoisjoly's actions.
Are there conditions under which a whistleblower has a moral obligation to
resort to deception or law breaking?
4. Imagine that Boisjoly's original story is reported, the flight is delayed,
and Boisjoly is gradually eased out of the company. The news story causes
a precipitous drop in Thiokol's stock price. The price remains depressed for a
year while the O-ring problem is solved. The next launch is successful, but a
massive unrelated computer malfunction causes the shuttle to burn up during
reentry. NASA decides to cancel such space flights for good, costing Thiokol
millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs. Assess the moral character of Boisjoly's actions.
Boisjoly, Russell P., Ellen Foster Curtis, and Eugene Melican, "Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger
Disaster: The Ethical Dimensions," Journal of Business Ethics, 8 (1989),217 -230.
Rossiter, AI, Jr., "Company Sidelines Exec Who Objected to Challenger Launch," Sunday StarLedger, May 11, 1986, I, 10.
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