Case Histories in Business Ethics

By Chris Megone; Simon J. Robinson | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

Challenger Flight 51-L

A case history in whistleblowing

Simon Robinson

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

(R.P. Feynman, member of the Presidential Commission on the Challenger Disaster)

Challenger flight 51-L was the tenth launch of the Challenger series, the first launch from Cape Kennedy Launch Complex 39-B. Though this case history focuses on the Challenger flight which ended tragically some 73 seconds into its flight on 28 January 1986, it is more to do with the whole National Space Transportation System - the 24 launches prior to this one and the ones scheduled after it. The Challenger was simply part of a programme that summed up the technological capacity of the United States. The programme as a whole was built on a series of myths, social, technical and managerial, which sustained the national and political interest and made management as well as politicians believe that over-ambitious targets were feasible. In fact the whole programme remained essentially experimental, with many threats to safety involved. Hence, safety should have been at a premium. The safety programme, however, was gradually eroded in the face of the many economic and political pressures, and the management structure did not encourage managers or engineers to state or press their concerns about safety. At various points these concerns were expressed, but their implications were not taken seriously by the management, and the critical issues were never addressed.

This case history will first outline the facts of the case. Then it will examine the various points at which the whistle might have been blown, drawing out the different perspectives of the people involved and also the implications for the practice of whistleblowing. Finally, it will note the conclusions of the Presidential Commission, with recommendations for a more transparent management system which would encourage whistleblowing.

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