|Case Study #5 – Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion
(Revised 19 January 2009)
On January 28, 1986, seven astronauts were killed when the space shuttle they were piloting, the Challenger, exploded just over a minute into the flight. The failure of the solid rocket booster O-rings to seat properly allowed hot combustion gases to leak from the side of the booster and burn through the external fuel tank. The failure of the O-ring was attributed to several factors, including faulty design of the solid rocket boosters, insufficient low- temperature testing of the O-ring material and the joints that the O-ring sealed, and lack of proper communication between different levels of NASA management.
The designer and manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters was Morton-Thiokol of Brigham City, UT. Engineers at Morton-Thiokol were aware of this inadequacy of the O-ring seals and repeatedly brought the problem to the attention of Morton-Thiokol management and NASA. Just before the shuttle was to be launched, these engineers made a last, late attempt to prevent the launch, but they were overruled by management.
Whitbeck, Caroline, Ethics in Engineering Practice and Reseach, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 1998.