Unintended Evil: The Challenger Disaster was Preventable

Max Bazerman: A tough question is, what do you do when you’re part of a group and you’re not the leader of the group, and the leader and the others are moving in a particular direction, and you think that it has ethical problems?  If we take a look at the Challenger story, there were two engineers who were fighting against the launch, but it turns out that they weren’t particularly well-organized in their data presentation.  And the fact that they weren’t well-prepared, the fact that their arguments were primarily affective rather than reasoned, really impeded their ability to have an impact.

The evening before the launch of the Challenger there was a meeting, and some of the engineers at Morton Thiokol who provided the engine believed that there were problems with the O-rings at temperatures below 53 degrees.  They provided that argument, and NASA, under political pressure, dramatically wanted to launch. 

Most astounding was the engineers were looking at the seven previous launches out of twenty-four where there had been problems. and they couldn’t discern an appropriate pattern.  What they failed to do was to ask what any engineer should have known, and that is if you want to know whether temperature is related to O-ring failure, you need to look at the successes and the failures. 

Throughout this process there was virtually no discussion about the fact that seven astronauts had their lives at stake.  The discussion turned entirely technical.  It had very much of a managerial feel to it, and the ethical part of the decision faded from awareness.

So the question is, what kind of intervention might have been effective?  And the amazing part of the Challenger story is that the intervention was shockingly easy.  All that was really needed was for somebody to say, "If we want to know 'is temperature related to O-ring failure,' what data do we need?"  And the answer is quite obvious: we need to look at the data for all twenty-four launches rather than just the seven launches with problems to see if there’s a difference in temperature between successful and unsuccessful launches.  Had somebody asked that question it would have been very easy to get the other seventeen data points.  And when you look at all twenty-four data points together the decision to not launch becomes extremely obvious. 

So one critical issue for group members who think that they’re going to be confronting a situation where they’re going to have a limited opportunity to convince others to move in a different direction is to make sure that you’ve put all your data together, you have a good, reasoned argument so that people can see the wisdom of a more ethical direction.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

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