Term Paper: Challenger Launch Decision Joe Kilminster

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[. . .] They should approach the primary sources of decision in discovering what really happened and what institutional forces were considered. They should seek out direct links among actions and decisions made by primary sources and how these were influenced or programmed by operational, technical, financial and other managerial influences within and without. From there, the "decision stream" can be constructed in a chronological order around the time of the accident or event and against which the organization's world view can be drawn.

She also suggests that investigators go through incomplete or erroneous system definitions, the existing knowledge of system operation and system performance and their roles in decision-making. They should choose a method that will enable them to discover, find and ask the right questions of those who made and influenced the decisions.

Most importantly, Vaughan's discussion of causation deserves notice by those in charge of air safety investigation. She writes that all causal explanations have significant implications for control, whereby explanations for organizational failure that trace back to individual decision makers make quick remedies possible. These remedies include firing, transferring or retiring the erring person or persons; fixing the technological defect or error; implement control decisions; and proceed (p 392).

National Society of Professional Engineers. Code of Ethics for Engineers.

This Code of Ethics states that engineering is an important and learned profession and that engineers are to exhibit the highest standards of honesty and integrity. Because the profession has a direct impact on the lives of people, engineers are sworn to practice honesty, impartiality, fairness and equity and to be dedicated to the protection of public health, safety and welfare. Engineers must observe and adhere to the highest principles of ethical conduct, whereby they must hold the safety, health and welfare of the public of paramount importance; perform services only within their areas of competence; issue public statements objectively and truthfully; act as faithful agents or trustees for each employer or client; avoid deceptive acts; and behave honorably, responsibly, ethically and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation and usefulness of the profession.

Department of Philosophy and Department of Mechanical Engineering. The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. Texas A & M. University

This was written by an anonymous contributor, who also volunteered details on the mechanical failure of the Challenger, a list of those involved in the launch decision and their probable motivations to the decision.

The unknown contributor points to the mechanical cause as the failure of the solid rocket booster or srb, in turn, due to technical defects, such as faulty design, insufficiently low temperature testing of the O-ring material, the sealing of the O-rings, and miscommunication among and between managerial levels at the NASA and Thiokol.

The contributor lists names and dates involved in the accident. McDonald was director of the Solid Rocket Motors Project and he had Roger Boisjoly and Robert Ebeling as engineers working under him; Bob Lund was Thiokol engineering vice president, Joe Kilminster as Thiokol's vice president for space booster programs; and Jerald Mason as vice president and general manager for space division. The unknown author traces that NASA awarded the contract to Morton Thiokol in 1974; accepted Thiokol's booster design in 1976; Morton Thiokol discovered the joint rotation problem in 1977 and the O-ring erosion problem after the second shuttle flight; Thiokol called attention to the worst O-ring accident in a shuttle flight on January 24, 1985 and ordered new steel billets for a new field joint design; Thiokol informed the first level management of NASA on the srb problem; a teleconference was held in the evening of January 27, 1986 to discuss and justify a launch despite the cold temperature; and, the following day, the Challenger was flown but exploded 72 seconds after lifting.

In addition, the contributor offers speculations on the influences and motivations behind the sudden change of decision to launch the Challenger.

III. FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

NASA managers were adequately and promptly informed about the un-suitability of the approved design of shuttle rocket boosters when used under temperatures below 40 F. per the contract signed with Morton-Thiokol. Thiokol engineers, true to their oath, formally recommended postponements of the launch until the weather improved. Chronological records show this and bear them out.

But NASA authorities were also subject to severe economic and political pressures, as well as schedule backlogs, at that time (Department of Philosophy and Department of Mechanical Engineering). Competition with the European Space Agency compelled NASA to embark in this ambitious flight to prove cost effectiveness and as a commercial potential. It tried to justify budget requests by launching a number of missions that year. It did not want any more delays so that it could collect data a few day before another Russian project could be sent. It can also be inferred that NASA wanted to time the Challenger with then President Regan's State of the Union address, which focused on education and honored the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe.

Knowing the technical problem with the boosters as early as in 1977, Thiokol initiated redesign efforts in 1985 and informed NASA leaders about the move. Thiokol ordered new steel billets for a new design, but these were not ready in January 1986 when the accident occurred, as it took several months to manufacture (Department of Philosophy and Mechanical Engineering).

The critical element was the teleconference between the engineers and managers at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Alabama and Thiokol in Utah to explore the performance of the boosters in that cold weather. Lund endorsed his engineers' recommendation not to launch the shuttle but Mulloy first tried to challenge the position and arguments of the engineers, then bypassed Lund by asking Joe Kilminster, a middle manager, for his comments instead. Kilminster had extensive engineering background and was duly informed of the risks of a launch in that temperature. He was also subject to the decisions made by Lund, his superior, and to the ethical standards of his profession.

Instead of upholding his superior's decision, his fellow professionals' technical findings and recommendations and observing is profession's code of ethics, Joe Kilminster subjected himself to the pressure of NASA and asked for a five-minute recess during which he could find rationalization for a decision to proceed with the launch. During that brief intermission, Kilminster joined Mason in "taking off his engineer's hat and in putting on a manager's hat (Department of Philosophy and Department of Mechanical Engineering)."

Conclusively, Kilminster became accountable for writing out a new recommendation to proceed with the launch and got back to the teleconference and stated that, while the low temperature was a safety concern, their people said that the original data were inconclusive and that their engineering assessment was recommended. The truth was that the engineers were excluded from the decision made to proceed with the launch.

Kilminster becomes immediately and morally accountable and culpable for the disaster by ignoring what he himself as an expert engineer knew and what his subordinate professionals strongly recommended on the basis of technical knowledge. He also violates the professional code of ethics for engineers, which obligates him to put the welfare of the public above all personal considerations and to conduct himself honorably, responsibly, ethically and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation and usefulness of his profession (National Society of Professional Engineers). Kilminster yielded to Mason and NASA officials' pressure despite the firmness of his boss, Lund, and their engineers. And despite the firm position of Lund, Kilminster asked for a time-out off the teleconference to look for rationalizations to reverse their decision not to launch.

In the least, Kilminster is/was guilty of insubordination and un-professionalism. At most, he knowingly and directly risked the lives of seven persons inside the Challenger.

References

Benner, L. (1996). The Challenger Launch Decision by Diane Vaughan. Book Review, International Society of Air Safety Investigators: ISASI Forum. http://www.ipri.org/Reviews/Vaughan.html

Jennings, MM. (1996). Summary of the "Challenger" Episode. Case Studies in Business Ethics, second edition. West Publishing. http://www.calbaptist.edu/dskubik/nasa.htm

Stubley, G. (1998). Engineers and Integrity. The Objectivist Center. http://www.ios.org/tex/gstubley_engineers-integrity.asp

Vaughan, D. (1996). The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture and Deviance at NASA.. Paperback. University of Chicago Press.

1997). Targets for Fire-Fighting: Lessons from the Challenger Tragedy. Association of Wildland Fire:… [END OF PREVIEW]

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