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Engineering Ethics in Context of NASA Space Shuttle Disasters

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Engineering ethics is the field of system of significant and moral principles that apply to the practice of engineering. The field examines and sets the commitments of engineers to society, to their clients, and to the profession. As a scholarly discipline, it is closely related to subjects such as the philosophy of science, the philosophy of engineering, and the technology. The engineers should be aware of the greatest merit in using their profession for serving society, attending to the welfare and progress of the majority. The engineer should understand any situations that results in harming the general interest, thus avoiding a situation that might be hazardous or threatening to the environment, life, health, or other rights of human beings. The duty of the engineer is to showcase the prestige of the profession, to ensure its proper discharge, and to maintain a professional demeanor rooted in ability, honesty, courage, temperance, generosity, modesty, honesty, and justice; with the consciousness of individual well-being subordinate to the social good.

The NASA Space Shuttle disasters is an important accident caused by the improper approach towards ethics. The space shuttle is one of the most complex engineered systems built. The challenge of lifting a space vehicle from earth into orbit and have it safely returned to earth presents many engineering problems. Not surprisingly, there have been several accidents in the U.S. space program since its initiation, including two failures of the space shuttle. The disasters involving the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia illustrate issues related to engineering ethics. The space shuttle went into service in the early 1980s and is set to be retired sometime in 2011 or 2012. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger is the most widely observed case in engineering ethics because of the extensive media coverage at the time of the accident and because of the many available government reports and transcripts of congressional hearings related to the explosion. The case illustrates some important ethical issues that engineers face in accomplishing a task. The space shuttle generally designed as a reusable launch vehicle. The vehicle consists of an orbiter, which looks much like a medium-sized airliner, two solid-propellant boosters, and a single liquid-propellant booster. At take-off, all of the boosters are ignited and lift the orbiter out of the earth’s atmosphere. The solid rocket boosters are only used early in the flight and are jettisoned soon after take-off, parachute back to earth, and are recovered from the ocean. They are subsequently repacked with fuel which is reusable. The liquid-propellant booster is used in final stage in lifting the shuttle into orbit, at which point the booster is jettisoned and burns up during re-entry. The liquid booster is the only part of the shuttle vehicle that cannot be reused. After completion of the mission, the orbiter makes use of its limited thrust capabilities to re-enter the atmosphere and glides to a landing. Failure of one of the solid rocket boosters was the reason of the accident on January 28, 1986.

The space shuttle disaster of NASA on January 28, 1986 was because of failure of one of the solid rocket boosters. As a result of the explosion, the shuttle program was grounded as a thorough review of shuttle safety was conducted. Thiokol, an American corporation concerned initially with rubber and related chemicals formed a failure-investigation team on January 31, 1986, which included an American mechanical engineer, hydrodynamics specialist Roger Boisjoly. There were also many investigations into the cause of the space shuttle disaster, both by the contractors involved (including Thiokol) and by various government bodies. As part of the governmental investigation, the 40th president of the United States Ronald Reagan appointed a blue-ribbon commission, known as the Rogers Commission. The commission consisted of distinguished scientists and engineers who were asked to investigate the cause of the accident and to recommend changes in the shuttle program. One of the commission members was Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, demonstrated to the country what had gone wrong. In a demonstration that was repeatedly shown on national news programs, he demonstrated the problem with the bending tiny rubber part called ‘O-rings’, which formed the seal between sections of the solid rocket boosters. The flexibility of the material at room temperature was obvious. He then immersed it in ice water. When Richard Feynman bent the O-ring, it was obvious that the resiliency of the material was severely decreased, a very clear demonstration of what happened to the O-rings on the cold launch date in Florida. As part of the commission hearings, Roger Boisjoly and other Thiokol engineers were asked to test O-rings. Roger Boisjoly handed over to the commission copies of internal Thiokol memos and reports detailing the design process and the problems that had already been encountered. Naturally, Thiokol was trying to put the best possible spin on the situation, and Roger Boisjoly’s actions hurt this effort. According to Roger Boisjoly, after this action Thiokol management harassed him. Eventually, the atmosphere became intolerable for Roger Boisjoly, and he took extended sick leave from his position at Thiokol. The O-ring was redesigned, and the shuttle has since flown numerous successful missions. However, the hopeful launch schedule originally intended by NASA was never met. The space shuttle disaster happened in 1986 took away lives of many astronauts and the studies related to the disaster helped NASA in accomplishing all ethics before introducing and testing a new system. It was reported in 2001 that NASA has spent $5 million to study the possibility of installing some type of escape system to protect the shuttle crew in the event of an accident. Possibilities include ejection seats or an escape capsule that would work during the first three minutes of flight. These features were incorporated into new space vehicles and in fact were in place on the shuttle until 1982. Whether such a system would have saved the astronauts aboard the Challenger is unknown, and an escape system was never incorporated into the space shuttle.

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During the early morning hours of February 1, 2003, many people across the Southwestern United States awoke to a loud noise, sounding like the boom associated with supersonic aircraft. This was the space shuttle Columbia breaking up during re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere. This accident was the second loss of a space shuttle in 113 flights—all seven astronauts aboard the Columbia were killed—and pieces of the shuttle were scattered over a wide area of eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Over eighty-four thousand individual pieces were eventually recovered, comprising only about 38% of the shuttle. This was the 28th mission flown by the Columbia, a sixteen days mission involving many tasks. The first indication of trouble during re-entry came when temperature sensors near the left wheel well indicated a rise in temperature. Soon, hydraulic lines on the left side of the craft began to fail, making it difficult to keep control of the vehicle. Finally, it was impossible for the pilots to maintain the proper positioning of the shuttle during re-entry the Columbia went out of control and broke up. The bottom of the space shuttle is covered with ceramic tiles designed to dissipate the intense heat generated during re-entry from space. The destruction of the Columbia was attributed to damage to tiles on the leading edge of the left wing. During lift-off, a piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank dislodged and struck the shuttle. It was estimated that this foam struck the shuttle wing at over 500 miles per hour, causing significant damage to the tiles on the wing over an area of approximately 650 cm2. With the integrity of these tiles compromised, the wing structure was susceptible to extreme heating during re-entry and ultimately failed. Shuttle launches are carefully observed by numerous video cameras. During the launch, the foam separation and strike had been observed. Much thought was given during Columbia’s mission to determine whether significant damage had occurred. For example, there was some discussion of trying to use ground-based telescopes to look at the bottom of the shuttle while in orbit. Unfortunately, even if it had been possible to find the damage, there would have been no way to repair the damage in space. The only alternatives would have been to attempt to launch another shuttle on a dangerous rescue mission or attempt to get the astronauts to the space station by launching a later rescue mission to bring them back to earth. In the end, NASA decided that the damage from the foam strike had probably not been significant and decided to continue with the mission and re-entry as planned. This was not the first time that foam had detached from the fuel tank during launch, and it was not the first time that foam had struck the shuttle. Apparently numerous small pieces of foam hit the shuttle during every launch, and on at least seven occasions before the Columbia launch, large pieces of foam had detached and hit the shuttle. Solutions to the problem found had been proposed over the years, but none had been implemented.

An accident such as the Challenger explosion should have led to a major change in the safety and ethics culture within NASA. But sadly, for the crew of the Columbia disaster analyzers, it had not. After the Columbia accident, the space shuttle was again grounded until safety concerns related to foam strikes could be addressed. By 2005, NASA was confident that steps had been taken to make the launch of the shuttle safe and once again restarted the launch program. In July of 2005, Discovery was launched. During this launch, another foam strike occurred. This time, NASA was prepared and had planned for means to photographically assess the potential damage to the heat shield, and also planned to allow astronauts to make a spacewalk to assess the damage to the tiles and to make repairs as necessary. The damage from this strike was repaired in space and the shuttle returned to earth safely. Despite the success of the in-orbit repairs, NASA once again grounded the shuttle fleet until a redesign of the foam could be implemented. The redesign called for removal of foam from areas where foam detachment could have the greatest impact on tiles. The shuttle resumed flight with a successful launch in September of 2006 and no further major accidents through early 2011.In recapitulating, ethics related space issues ended with a huge loss.

Thus, we can conclude that engineering ethics is the study of moral decisions that must be made by engineers in the course of engineering practice. Even though a person or firm with years of experiences in any field, it is important to execute any work considering basic ethics to be followed for the same.

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Engineering Ethics in Context of NASA Space Shuttle Disasters. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved October 3, 2023, from
“Engineering Ethics in Context of NASA Space Shuttle Disasters.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
Engineering Ethics in Context of NASA Space Shuttle Disasters. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 Oct. 2023].
Engineering Ethics in Context of NASA Space Shuttle Disasters [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2023 Oct 3]. Available from:
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