To take the position of Roger Boisjoly, the engineer who raised objections to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger, there are something that he could has done differently to change course of the catastrophic situation.
First, let’s review and analyze what has happened during the time before rocket launch. The technical staffs at the site understand the problem well enough to make the judgment but would render ineffective if they couldn’t convince management to change their set goal. It is the kind of problem generally faced by technicians and engineers and should not be avoided considering the ultimate objectives and missions of the project.
Boisjoly was working for Morton Thiokol, a NASA contracted company responsible for rocket assembly. The problematic parts that caused the explosion of the rocket after 73 seconds after the launch is called O-Ring. It’s the joint parts of booster rocket. The official announcement of root cause from the special appointed presidential commission stated that the extremely low temperature caused the contraction of the O-Ring thus creating a gap for leakage of high temperature combustion gas that finally set off blast from the liquid fuel.
However, this is not to say that it is Boisjoly false in this case that he had failed to change the management decision. From the communication records it’s found that NASA had recognized warning from engineers in a conference with Thiokol and gave them a final approval for launch. Nevertheless, the internal conversation between technical and management team inside Thiokol has resulted in the famous quote “take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat” said the general manager at that time.
I would argue in favor of Boisjoly that he had already put on management hat by warning about the risk that could affect safety of the whole project, even though in the end he has been pressured to change the decision. In this perspective, it can be said that Boisjoly had greater management vision than that of the manager whose major concern was the cost and launch schedule. Therefore, from this perspective, it’s in an absolute responsibility of management to not ignore such warnings and proceed to the launch.
On the other hand, H. Collins and J. Murata argued that said Boisjoly should have made a stronger point and put more scientific effort in proving his point towards engineer colleagues and managements. These kinds of arguments show the lack of understanding in the nature of the engineering work. The fact that not all engineers were agree with Boisjoly’s objection is because the system is highly complex and they, the other engineer, weren’t sure either they are totally correct on their ground. Moreover, to make further investigation, experiment for concrete proof, budget and time must be set aside which will further delay the launch. It’s not likely that management will agree with that option either.
It is not fair and illogical to blame Boisjoly for not be able to convince majority to believe in his point. Rather, it’s the people who did not realize about the problem or even care to pay attention to the warning that should be ashamed of themselves. Last but not least, being a lower rank technician or engineer and making such objection may result in negative reputation in his professional career if his point is proved to be wrong, in ordinary organization. He must have carefully examined his concern to a certain extent before risking himself in the process of objection.
Thus, Boisjoly did deserve to be recognized for his efforts as pointed out by Caroline Whitbeck, the author of Gijyutsu Rinri (技術倫理). If there are anything that Boisjoly could have done better, it would be to calculate the risks in comparison for number of options. The analysis should take into account the holistic view of the problems, both technical and managerial factors, quantitatively. For example: to calculate the probability that the Challenger may come to explosion during such an extreme weather condition. Showing this report to the management and all parties involved will let everyone know that he has done the best he could from his position in a clear and easy to understand format possible.
In general, to avoid negative effects on sales or business the discussion should only be conducted internally. But if there are inside politics and unethical conducts going in the organization, the last option is to become a whistle-blower. Today, there is an option to effectively spread the information but staying anonymous using the power of the Internet: it’s a website called WikiLeaks. Then the public and society will decide what to do with the organization. Unfortunately, there was no WikiLeaks at the time of Challenger.
In my opinion, the ideal organization should be like: if an engineer like Boisjoly has raised a safety concern that could involve catastrophic lost, even with little evidence, it should be responsibility of all parties to investigate. The working culture should encourage the environment where opinions regarding safety should be given highest priority, the acts of spotting the problems and raising the concerns should be rewarded, and the policy of no punishment should the argument proved to be wrong must be guaranteed.
Traditionally technicians and engineers are being viewed as skilled workers as opposed to managers whose job is to manage labor workforce. Thus, it is common that in job delegation engineers are given mostly duties but very little authorities, a.k.a. power to make important decisions. The ideal organization should adopt the principle of democracy as much as possible to promote well distribution of power and freedom. Most of the organizations today still use top-down line of command like in military. This kind of ideas is not new and it’s currently taking root in modern companies in many names like flat organization, kaizen, people first principal, open government etc.
It is hoped that in the near future we will getting closer to the society where the main drives of each and every organizations are not only limited to self-interest and the profits for small group of people but rather the balanced and sustainable development of each individual, the communities and the world we are living in.