The recent death of Robert Ebeling, the former Morton-Thiokol engineer who went public with some of the regrets he suffered in the 30 years since the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, presents all engineers with an opportunity to reflect on the importance of what they do. Ebeling, a mechanical engineer, was one of four people at his company who protested the plan to launch the Challenger on an unusually cold morning at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 28, 1986. A more senior employee of Thiokol, which built the rocket-booster system and the O-ring seals that failed in the launch, and managers of the propulsion technology unit of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration overruled Ebelng and his colleagues. As we now know, the flight lasted fewer than 100 seconds and the crew died in the explosion.
The decision-makers above Ebeling and his colleagues were subject to “go-fever,” a bias in favor of pressing forward with a plan despite signs of high risk. In the case of the Challenger, there has been speculation that the launch decision was affected by the travel schedule of the U.S. vice president.
O-ring seal erosion and blowback problems had been, for years, a troublesome part of the booster-rocket design and were still unresolved in December 1985. Despite this, the O-ring seals were eliminated as a launch constraint in the months leading up to the Challenger mission.
Shortly before the launch, Ebeling and his teammates advised delaying until warmer weather moved in. Managers at NASA’s propulsion unit misunderstood the data presented to them about the seals and challenged the Thiokol engineers’ recommendation and warnings, which high-level NASA managers never learned about. As the launch approached, Ebeling shared a foreboding of disaster with his wife. For the rest of his life, Ebeling wished he had tried harder to stop the launch.
'Go-Fever' Strikes Again
If you think there are no comparable situations or moral engineering dilemmas in front of us now, think about what we have learned from Flint, Mich. The state managers who controlled the city’s activities exhibited a similar kind of go-fever when it came to making the temporary, money-saving switch of the city’s drinking-water source to the Flint River. The Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality fundamentally misunderstood the federal lead-and-copper rule for drinking water, according to a new advisory report. And while water-softening and anti-corrosion measures were suggested by the engineers hired by the city to advise on changes to Flint’s poorly maintained water treatment plant, the layered decision-making process—which included consulting engineers, city engineers, the municipal Dept. of Public Works and the state Dept. of Environmental Quality—obscured or altogether failed to see what would have been, in retrospect, wise and right.
Flint, like the Challenger disaster, offers lessons about how such mistakes happen.