Challenger Launch Decision Term Paper

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Challenger Launch Decision


On January 28, 1986, the Challenger, one of the reusable space shuttle by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA, was launched off at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida but exploded 72 seconds after liftoff. The launch was approved and ordered by the management of the Morton Thiokol, Inc., an aerospace company, that manufactures solid propellant rocket motors for big clients, including the NASA, and per NASA's urging despite the objection of Morton Thiokol's engineers that the 30-degree F. temperature was inclement to the shuttle's boosters. The launch was a publicized event as NASA's 25th mission and had a selected teacher, Christa McAulifee and six astronauts on board. All these passengers perished (Jennings 1996).

The launch was repeatedly postponed because the engineers of Thiokol notes the failure of an O. ring assembly in the rockets they used in tests conducted the previous year at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Utah. But because of political and economic motivations, the management of Thiokol yielded to the pressure from NASA and gave the go-signal to launch. Joe Kilminster, an engineer, and the Vice President or Space Booster Programs at Thiokol, was one of four management signatories who approved the launch and the author of the written recommendation that it was all right for the shuttle to fly (Jennings). Thiokol's contract with the NASA provided that shuttles with boosters, like the Challenger, would function properly only within the range of 40 to 90 F. Its engineers also formalized their objection to such launch the day before the disaster.

What was the cause of the failure? Who were aware of the imminence of the failure? What steps were taken to prevent it, if any? Who is Joe Kilminster and how far was his accountability for the misfortune?

To answer these and related questions, the incident, the individuals involved and applicable laws should be understood, investigated and related. The damage was not limited to the explosion of the shuttle itself but extended to the death of the seven persons on board. Could and should the incident have been prevented? Was it within the power of Joe Kilminster to do so?

This study will recount the incident and go through the detailed background to identify the mechanical defect or defects that made the Challenger unfit for launch on January 28, 1986. It will review the organization setup of Morton Thiokol, the communications and the events that occurred previous to the explosion. In the process, the study will determine how far Joe Kilminster should be held accountable for the incident, based on his managerial capabilities and in accordance with the professional ethics for engineers to which he swore as a member of the profession.

The study will discuss the details from the organization level of the Morton Thiokol, the supervisory level, then the pre-conditional or immediate level, and the individual act of Joe Kilminster and those with whom he shared authority. The study is deemed quite significant in that it teaches a lesson that a technical problem should be handled by technical experts and that management should heed technical recommendations.


Jennings, MM. Summary of the Challenger Episode. Case studies in Business Ethics, second edition. West Publishing, 1996

This work provides ample background and information on the Challenger catastrophe, the people behind it, the events and the technical failure that led to the catastrophe. It zeroes in on the O. rings as the technical source, booster rockets manufactured by Morton Thiokol, Inc. For NASA specifically for the widely publicized January 28, 1986 launching event for which it held a nationwide search for a teacher to fly in it as NASA's 25th space mission. The author, Jennings, writes that the launch was repeatedly delayed because of the booster problem, but NASA still called to ask if the shuttle could be flown even in a 30-degree F. Thiokol's contract specified that the lowest temperature for the boosters was 40F. Thiokol engineers Allan McDonald and Rogers Boisjoly formally opposed the launch due to this technical problem.

Jennings relates that a presidential commission later, however, came up to say that management reversed its decision and, instead, gave the go-signal for the launch. One of the managers who reversed the former decision was Joe Kilminster, an engineer. He was Thiokol's Vice President for Space Booster Programs. On his journal, Boisjoly wrote down his disagreement to, and disappointment over, some of Kilminster's statements in
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the summary the latter made in approving the launch. Boisjoly also expressed apprehensions of a catastrophe, which, indeed happened only 72 seconds from liftoff of the shuttle.

After the incident, blame was placed squarely on Thiokol but Thiokol CEO disowned responsibility in that he never agreed to the launch under temperatures lower than those specified in its contract with NASA. He insisted that the matter should have been referred to its headquarters and he would not have given clearance. Since Boisjoly and McDonald testified, they had been isolated and later demoted or transferred to "special projects." Later on, Boisjoly separated from Thiokol and now runs his own consulting firm and frequently speaks on business ethics before professional organizations and firms.

Jennings also recounts that, in 1989, the Morton partner of Thiokol separated but Thiokol remained under contract with NASA and redesigned the shuttle rocket motor to correct the defect. The author points out that no one was fired or prosecuted because of the Challenger accident. The only response was the creation of the Government Accountability Project in Washington DC, which provides legal assistance and materials to help advocates working on government projects.

Stubley, Gordon. Engineer and Integrity. The Objectivist Center, 1998

This work delves more into the details of the faulty O-ring seal that led to the Challenger explosion and which the author links with the carbon monoxide poisoning incident in the Taggart Tunnel disaster. Stubley writes that there was no reason to expect the O-rings to work. Right before the launch, the predicted temperature was 26 F. And 18 F. overnight. The situation was discussed at a teleconference among senior NASA administrators and four Thiokol executives, namely, senior vice president of aerospace division Jerald Mason, vice president and GM for space division Calvin Wiggins, Joe Kilminster, and vice president for engineering Robert K. Lund. After the engineering team presented evidence opposing a launch, Lund and Kilminster recommended its postponement until warmer air temperatures.

NASA administrators, however, were stunned and turned off by the recommendation, because they were then under severe pressure to prove the viability of their space shuttle program. Joe Kilminster sensed this pressure and asked to go off-line for five minutes. Apparently, there was a phone call during those five minutes, because when it ended, Mason announced that there had to be a management decision to overturn the engineers' recommendation. Mason told Lund to take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat. The result was the disaster.

Vaughan, Diane. The Challenger Launch Decision. Paperback. University of Chicago Press, February 1996

The author, professor Diane Vaughan exposes the failures of investigation methods into two recent and prominent air crashes occurring in two organizations with solid reputation for high sensitivity to safety. She begins her own investigation from the NASA, the world's most reputable in the field of risk assessment and operational safety until its fiasco on January 28, 1986. The givens were the findings of a presidential commission, the NASA itself, and a special subcommittee of the House of Representatives concluded that the accident was caused by a combination of production pressures and wrong managerial decision and viewed as a technical failure to which both the NASA and Thiokol contributed.

Vaughan uses her scholarly expertise in organizational ethics and misconduct in acquiring new data directly from the primary sources in determining and understanding the basis of the decision to launch. She interviewed the participants in the original "stream of decisions" and, in evaluating their actions and decisions in the chronological and cultural order, she came upon what she described as an "incremental descent into poor judgment." She determines that it was not the managers' amorally violating the rules that led to the accident but their conformity that did (p 138). She also says that this finding eluded investigators because they did not ask the right questions but simply made conventional conclusions, which, in turn, led to erroneous interpretations.

Vaughan offers insights into decision-making mechanisms in investigating organizational or managerial influences. In the Challenger disaster's case, she points to NASA managers' uncritical acceptance of deviance from established expectations and limits and the consequent normalization of deviations inclined or compelled them to approve the launch. She comes to realize that these limitations also lacked scientific basis in that they were derived from irrelevant and un-tested applications data. She also discovered that many aspects of the behavior of the solid rocket booster joint used for the Challenger were either unknown or un-recognized before the fatal launch.

Vaughan shares…

Sources Used in Documents:


Benner, L. (1996). The Challenger Launch Decision by Diane Vaughan. Book Review, International Society of Air Safety Investigators: ISASI Forum.

Jennings, MM. (1996). Summary of the "Challenger" Episode. Case Studies in Business Ethics, second edition. West Publishing.

Stubley, G. (1998). Engineers and Integrity. The Objectivist Center.

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

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