The Challenger disaster was not only a disaster in terms of the destruction of the spacecraft and the death of its crew but also in terms of the decision-making process that led to the launch and in terms of the subsequent investigation into the 'causes' of the disaster. The decision to recommend for launch was made by lower-level management officials over the objections of technical experts who opposed the launch under the environmental conditions that existed on the launch pad at the time. Furthermore, the lower-level managers who made this decision -- both NASA and contractor personnel -- chose not to report the objections of the technical experts in their recommendations to higher levels in the management chain- of-command to proceed with the launch. Finally, it seems that the lower-level managers had also received out-of-the-ordinary pressure from higher levels of management (some allusions suggested this pressure may have come all the way from the White House) to proceed with the launch on time. The subsequent investigation began with efforts to determine the technical causes of the explosion of the Challenger.
Initially, the decision-making process leading to the launch was not considered by investigators. This suggests that the initial purpose of the investigation was not concerned with ethical issues or issues of responsibility. As the investigation proceeded, information emerged through leaks to the press, which suggested that NASA had been aware of the risk of explosion under the environmental conditions that existed for the Challenger launch for several months prior to the launch. Also, the opposition of the technical experts to the launch just prior to the decision to launch became known to the investigators as well. These two pieces of information changed the nature of the investigation mid-stream from an effort to determine the technical cause of the explosion of the spacecraft to an investigation of the decision-making process leading to the launch. Viewing the Challenger disaster as an ethical problem would lead to an effort to determine whether the decision to launch was 'right' or 'wrong.' Clearly, the explosion was an accident.
It was an accident that might have been prevented or anticipated but the decision to launch was clearly a matter of judgment -- albeit of apparently poor judgment in retrospect -- rather than a matter of 'rightness' or 'wrongness.' As such, an examination of the Challenger disaster as an ethical problem does little to illuminate the issue. A more appropriate ethical analysis would seek to understand the ways in which the decision-making process itself fostered or hindered responsibility among individuals within the organization and of the organization itself. In this respect, when viewed as a problem of responsibility, the Challenger disaster presents a much more insightful lesson on the nature of decision-making in a large organization such as NASA. While it seems clear that the decision that led to the explosion of the Challenger was made by those lower-level managers who chose to ignore the objections of technical experts who opposed the launch, the subsequent investigation revealed how the decision-making processes within NASA (and it contractors) worked to limit the agency of decision-makers and to obscure accountability for their decision-making. The problem of responsibility in the decision-making process focuses upon three issues: the availability of information, the role of technical specifications and formal regulations, and the management chain-of-command. Each of these factors contributed to the exercise of poor judgment and to the obscuring of accountability in the decision-making process.
The availability of information -- more precisely the lack of information -- had an impact upon the decision-making process in three different ways. The technical experts who recommended against launching were not aware of the nature of the out-of-the- ordinary pressure upon their managers from higher levels of management to launch on time. Similarly, the higher-level managers were not aware of the objections of the technical experts when they received the recommendation to launch from lower-level managers. Finally, the lower-level managers, who choose both to ignore the advice of the technical experts and not to pass those objections along to their superiors, lacked both an appreciation of the details of the technical objections to the launch as well as an appreciation of the nature of the pressure to launch on time. To the extent that each group lacked complete information, their ability to make decisions was hampered and their motivation to resort to technical specifications and formal regulations to resolve issues increased.
The role of technical specifications and formal regulations was central to the decision-making process. As technical experts and lower-level managers sought to make decisions with incomplete information, they turned to technical specifications and formal regulations to resolve issues. The technical experts were unable to prove that the Challenger would explode under the environmental conditions anticipated for launch and thus were repeatedly pressed by the lower-level managers to provide evidence of the risk from technical specifications or reason to postpone the launch in formal procedures. No such specifications or procedures were available.
Similarly, the technical experts, acting with a lack of understanding about the nature of the pressure upon their superiors to launch on time, relied upon the formal decision-making procedures when their objections were overruled and did not report their objections to higher levels in the management chain-of-command. Thus, the ability of both groups to act was hampered to the extent they relied upon technical specification and formal procedures such as the chain- of-command. Similarly, resorting to specifications and regulations provided both groups a means to avoid accountability for decisions that were made on the basis of those specifications and regulations. The management chain-of-command was the most important aspect of the decision-making process.
No group -- technical experts, lower- level managers, or higher-level managers -- ever questioned the chain-of-command. The technical experts did not choose to express their objections to the launch outside of the normal channels of the chain-of-command. Nor did the higher-level managers seek advice outside the chain-of-command despite the apparent existence of out- of-the-ordinary pressure to launch on time. Similarly, in their decision to ignore the objections of the technical experts and to fail to explain to the technical experts the nature of the out-of-the-ordinary pressure to launch on time, the lower-level experts assumed the chain-of-command would not be circumvented. The role of this emphasis upon the chain-of-command in obscuring accountability emerged during the investigation. Technical experts at the bottom of the chain-of-command were not accountable for the the decision to launch while higher-level managers at the top of the chain-of- command were not accountable for recognition of the technical risks associated with launching in the environmental conditions at the time.
Lower-level managers were able to avoid accountability for both the final decision to launch (made by higher levels of management) and for recognition of the technical risks associated with launching (resting in the failure of technical experts to provide justification against launching in technical specifications or formal regulations). Each of these factors -- the management chain-of-command, the role of technical specifications and formal regulations, and the availability of information -- served to both hinder the ability of decision-makers to act and to obscure accountability for their decision-making. As such, they served to limit the responsibility of individuals within the decision-making process and to render that process itself irresponsible. These obstacles to responsibility within NASA point to the more important ethical problem that existed beyond the scope of the specific instance of the Challenger disaster. Namely, the poor nature of the decision-making process within NASA and its negative role in fostering responsibility, both on the part of individuals and on the part of the organization as a who.