Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.

Moral Dilemmas in Engineering: the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.


All Engineers, regardless of their specializations, spend a lot of time trying to find solutions for the engineering problems that they face. These solutions must be accurate, beneficial and, most importantly, ethical solutions. An engineer might find himself in a difficult situation where s/he has to choose between a beneficial solution, to his/her work or employer, or an ethical solution which may not be beneficial. This situation is called moral dilemma. In our study we will search in details the moral dilemmas in engineering. In addition, to get a better understanding a study case of engineering moral dilemmas will be searched which is the moral dilemma of the space shuttle Challenger. A survey consisted of 10 questions was conducted to have a true knowledge about moral dilemmas in engineering. The participants of this survey were from Multimedia University. From this survey we have found that a huge number of the participants do not know the meaning of moral dilemmas even though they face these cases regularly. We have also found that mistakes made in choosing between engineering moral dilemma's choices may sometimes make the whole world suffers.

1.0 Introduction:

In any field, as daily life activities are being practiced, moral dilemmas are regularly faced. In order to understand what moral dilemmas are, here we will try to define moral dilemmas.

What is a moral dilemma?

A moral dilemma is a complicated situation which one finds himself in where he is unable to choose between moral imperatives (choices) due to mental conflict as by choosing one you will overstep the other. Your choice will surely cause somebody to suffer. Sometimes your choice is built on your ethical or moral background. This makes it easy when you believe that some choices are right and others are wrong. This is not really a dilemma. The real dilemma is when you think that a choice will lead to breach a moral principle.

An example of a moral dilemma is that, a cargo ship is drowning. It is carrying ten people and valuable goods. One life boat is available, which has a capacity of seven people as well as the captain. The captain can either save the goods or seven people. Three of the passengers are going to die. Three of the ten passengers were very sick and apparently cannot survive the trip in the life boat. He is in a moral dilemma.

Another example is that, a doctor has two emergency cases: one of a simple man who is very sick and needs immediate attendance, the other case is of a rich man who has just arrived in an ambulance as a result of a car accident. Choosing either case the other will suffer.

A countless number of moral dilemmas are faced in almost all fields of work such as Engineering and technology fields, medical fields, companies and international organizations. However, the results of moral dilemmas vary from field to another. E.g. a moral dilemma in a trading company may lead to a loss of money in a company only, while a moral dilemma in a hospital affects people's life.

1.1 Moral Dilemmas in Engineering:

Engineering moral dilemma is referred to a situation where engineer has to choose between job securities, product standards, family and so on, and consideration of morally accepted behavior. Sometimes engineer is not practically given a choice.

Moral dilemmas in engineering are most effectual as they are directly associated to many fields such as economic field, social field and scientific field. In other words, the result of some moral dilemmas in engineering may influence and change the fate of the society and the economy of the country in which the engineering moral dilemma occurs.

Some of engineering moral dilemmas results are considered disastrous. A lot of engineering disasters were found to have a relationship, in a way or another, with deficient engineering morals and ethics. As professional engineers, they have to be aware of their responsibilities and obligations to the environment, clients, employers and the public. Also, to be an ethical engineer one has to avoid interest conflict like working outside his specialization area which may result in moral dilemmas disasters.

Some of the engineering disasters were caused by engineering moral dilemmas are Tacoma bridge disaster in Washington, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Generation Station disaster, the space shuttle Challenger disaster and many others.

In this research, we will turn our interests to investigate in a national disaster that was caused by engineering moral dilemmas which is the disaster of the space shuttle challenger.

2.0 introductory overview of space shuttles:

In general, a space shuttle is an advanced type of flying vehicle that is able to reach the outer space carrying satellites, human beings and equipment. Usually, space shuttles are able to carry a load of approximately 32 tons. One of the main advantages of the space shuttle is that they are partly reusable.

Furthermore, a space shuttle consists mainly of three parts; the vehicle that floats the space and it is called the orbiter, external fuel tank and two pushing rockets. The space shuttle starts its lift off the same as a normal rocket. During the lift off process, the two rockets and the external fuel tank will be separated from the shuttle, and the shuttle reaches the space alone after completing its spin cycle around the earth which aims to gain a speed to escape from the earth's gravity this speed is estimated at 11.93km/s. moreover, after completing its purpose the space shuttle goes back to the earth and lands trying to mitigate the force of gravity resulting from the free falling to have a similar landing as the usual planes. One of the features is that a space shuttle can have more than one trip.

Anyway, a space shuttle has a lot of purposes such as launching satellites into the space and it can also work as a laboratory when orbiting as well as many other purposes.

3.0 Introductory Overview of the Space Shuttle Challenger:

3.1 History of Challenger manufacturing:

Before it was known as Challenger it was called: STA-099, the first main purpose of STA-099 was to test the program of space shuttles. Even though STA-099's tasks were totally on earth, it was destined to visit the space. In order to get a space shuttle lighter in weight, NASA contracted with “Space shuttle orbiter manufacturer Rockwell” to convert SAT-099 to a real space shuttle, which was later known as OV-099, that has the ability to handle the difficulties of space flying. In 1982, OV-099 conversion process was done and it was the second space shuttle that NASA had had after the first space shuttle “Colombia”.

The OV-099 was given the name “Challenger” after the British marine vehicle that belonged to “pioneering global marine research expedition” a world marine research center. Moreover, the space shuttle Challenger had nine successful trips in the period between April 1983 to January 1986 before the disaster.

3.2 The disaster of Challenger:

On Tuesday, 28th of January, NASA decided to launch a trip to the space in order to connect to a satellite to collect information about Halley Comet during the passage of the shuttle by the nearest point to the Sun. Since this phenomenon occurs only one time in every seventy-six years, the period of Halley Comet's rotation. This trip was launched after five postponements due to bad weather.

The crew of the flight, called STS-51L, consisted of seven astronauts as follows:



Francis R. Scobee

Spacecraft Commander

Michael J. Smith

The pilot

Dr. Judith A. Resnik

mission specialist

Dr. Ronald E. McNair

mission specialist

Ellison S. Onizuka

mission specialist

Gregory B. Jarvis

payload specialist

Sharon Christa McAuliffe


Table 1.0 Challenger crew

In a very cold morning, they were busy preparing for Challenger's tenth trip to the space in Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. The mission was called 51-L and it was the twenty-fifth space shuttle into the space. This mission was the most publicized one as it was the first time a civilian goes to the space. The civilian was a school teacher and she was chosen among hundreds of participants. At 11.38 a.m. Challenger left Pad 39B at Kennedy space center. 73 seconds at an altitude of approximately 8 miles the space shuttle Challenger frightfully exploded and converted to blocks of iron and fire. Some of the parts fall in the ocean in a sad and painful scene. It was the worst space accident occurred in the history of human beings in their trips to the space.

The space shuttle Challenger before the explosion Challenger explosion

The accident caused a huge sad impact in the hearts of United States citizens urged the president of United States of America at that time, Ronald Reagan, to constitute a committee to investigate the incident under the supervision of the Mayor of the state. Moreover, rescue teams have recovered the bodies and parts of the shuttle from the ocean. The U.S president has regretted the disaster to the nation of the United States of America and has ensured them the continuation of space flights and taking lessons from the previous mistakes. However, the American flights to the space have stopped for a period of time.

Furthermore, the investigations had shown that NASA had had a moral dilemma. There had been mistakes during the designing stage of the space shuttle Challenger and despite the engineers' warnings, NASA insisted on launching the shuttle. Next we are going to investigate in details the moral dilemma of Challenger disaster.

4.0 The Space Shuttle Challenger Moral Dilemma:

In this chapter we will investigate in a famous disaster that was caused by an engineering moral dilemma which is the disaster of the space shuttle Challenger.

4.1 Mechanical structure:

Same as any space shuttle, the main component of the space shuttle Challenger consisted of mainly the orbiter besides the two pushing rockets and the external fuel tank. The orbiter was containing the seven astronauts (the crew of the space shuttle).

However, the orbiter alone was not enough to get into the orbit since it can't carry, alone, enough fuel or even generate enough thrust. Since then, two large solid rocket boosters were provided as an additional thrust. Each one of the large solid rocket was attached to a side of the external tank by two struts. Once the shuttle reaches an altitude of 28.4 miles (roughly 45,750 m) by the impetus of the two solid rockets, they would be jettisoned (separated from the orbiter). The external tank contained to liquid materials; the top third of the external tank was filled with liquid oxygen while the other two thirds were filled with liquid hydrogen. It was decided that the fuel that the external tank had would supply the three engines of the orbiter to an altitude of 69.2 miles during a period of 8.5 minutes, the period in which the takes to reach 69.2 miles of altitude. The external tank would be jettisoned after the orbiter reaches the decided altitude.

4.2 Mechanical Reasons Caused the Disaster:

Practically, there were several reasons of this explosion. However, we are going to investigate in the main reason.

Each booster's segments were connected to the three major sections. These three main parts were connected to each other by a joint known as tang and clevis. Two rubber O-ring were used to seal the tang and clevis joint. As we know, rubber expands when exposed to heat. Therefore, by the heat generated from the boosters, the rubber seals expand to fill the three sections' joints and then it prevents the exhaust from escaping

However, the O-ring did not remain sealed. As a result, a hot pressurized gas flared and thaw (dissolve) the strut. As a second result the hot pressurized gas ignited the gases in the external fuel tanks which finally caused the space shuttle to explode.

In general, the main reason of the disaster was the insufficient resiliency of the O-rings in a, relatively, very cold temperature where the reason behind this low temperature was a complex one.

A very strong wind in the night before the incident caused the cooled air that was around the liquid hydrogen in the external fuel tank to flow to the lower portion of the right booster where the lower joint got cooled. However, these cooled winds and the outer low temperature (day-time temperature) were insufficient to turn the O-ring to a malfunctioned one. If those reasons (the winds and low temperature) were sufficient to turn the O-ring to a malfunctioned one, the explosion would happen only a few seconds after the lift off. However, the problem started 50 seconds after the Challenger had lifted off. Therefore, it is clear that there was another, unexpected, reason the caused the O-ring to be defective. To have better understanding of the, unexpected, reason we will introduce a term called “max Q”

Q max is the maximum point of pressure on the ascending space shuttle. Moreover, Q max is determined by the relationship between missile's acceleration and the density of the atmosphere. When the shuttle ascends, the acceleration increases while the atmosphere's density decreases.

Anyway, the pressure on the space shuttle reached the “Max Q” and then the O-ring was fully malfunctioned which then caused the shuttle to explode. Therefore, three reasons caused the O-ring to malfunction:

1- The very low day-time temperature in the day of the disaster. Engineers of Mortol Thiokol did not significantly know how O-ring would act in low temperature (below 51º F).

2- The cold wind that was deflected off the liquid gases filled external tank onto right lower joint.

3- Max Q.

4.3 Moral Reasons Caused the Disaster:

A period of time before the disaster, an O-ring engineer, Roger Boisjoly warned his colleagues at Morton Thiokol, where Challenger engineers worked, that the resiliency of the O-ring will be lost in a low temperature. Morton Thiokol's senior vice president at that time, Jerald Mason, knew that engineers were not able to give firm figures to tell that low temperature wouldn't be safe to launch the Challenger.

“Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat” Jerald Mason said to Robert Lund, the supervising engineer at Morton Thiokol. The recommendation that was given earlier which advised to delay Challenger launch was reserved as there was no firm figure says the launch would be unsafe.

It is clear that there was a moral dilemma in the disaster of the space shuttle Challenger as there was a conflict between engineering professional goals and managerial goals. The engineering goal was to make sure about the safety of the space shuttle while the managerial goal was to keep the trust of their employer and to be faithful. The engineering recommendation regarding the safety issue of the space shuttle Challenger was based on different foundation from the managerial decision. While the engineering recommendation was based on the favor of the public, the managerial decision cared more about the well-bing of the organization.

There was a flaw in the decision of launch the Challenger. People who decided the launch didn't have enough knowledge about the history of the problems regarding the O-ring and the joint. Moreover, they did not give attention to the recommendation that was initially given by the contractor which advised not to launch the space shuttle below 53º F and they launched the space in a temperature degree near to the mentioned one. That is because they did not have a good understanding about the recommendation not to launch the shuttle in such weather. However, they would choose the lesser evil of this moral dilemma and would not launch the shuttle if they had a better understanding of the problem.

5.0 Conclusion and Recommendations:

This research was done to study in details about moral dilemmas in Engineering. We have investigated in the concepts of moral dilemmas in general and especially in the ones that are related to engineering. As a case study of moral dilemmas in engineering, we have studied in details the moral dilemma of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

We have conducted a mini survey consisted of 10 questions to have basis for our research. 100 students and lecturer were randomly chosen from Multimedia University, Cyberjaya campus. The collected data helped us a lot in our research to have a realistic knowledge. Our resources were mainly from the internet, books and some scientific magazines.

However, the resources of our case study (the disaster of Challenger) were mainly from the internet as we faced difficulties to find books regarding this case in the book sources that are available to us.

This report may be useful for engineers, engineering students, scientists, researchers who want to make researches about engineering ethics and any other people who are interested in the topic of our research.

Future researches who intend to use our research as a reference should keep this in mind; we could not include all the details that are related to this topic as this is a small report. However, they can use the internet and some books to collect more details.

The survey has shown us that, a huge number of participants (69%) do not know this case is called moral dilemma and what its relationship with any field of work is even though a lot of them sometimes face moral dilemmas in their daily life. It was difficult for most of the participants to handle the moral dilemmas that they have had and to choose the lesser evil of the choices that were available to them.

Moreover, (85%) of the participants agreed that the world has been suffering enough from the disasters that result from engineering moral dilemmas.

As we have found, the reason of this lack of knowledge about moral dilemmas is that they have not learned about moral dilemmas in their previous or current studies even though most of them (83%) have studied ethical courses in their previous studies. However, those courses may have general content about ethics and not thorough in moral dilemmas.

We recommend that educational institutions include ethical courses in their curricula that investigate in details in moral dilemmas and some ways of dealing with them especially in the fields that are highly associated with fate of the society and the environment such us engineering fields, scientific research fields, medical fields and so on. We also recommend the development of some software that help in the resolution of engineering moral dilemmas and spread them. This spreading may be by committing engineering companies and corporation to have such software and make them available in engineering faculties and teach the students how to conduct them. This may help in decreasing engineering moral dilemmas disasters.



Joseph R. Herkert (1999): Social, Ethical, and Policy Implications of Engineering, Wiley-IEEE Press

Internet Articles:


Appendix A: A survey on Moral dilemmas in Engineering: The Space Shuttle Challenger.

A survey on Moral dilemmas in Engineering: The Space Shuttle Challenger:

We are a group of students from MMU. We are preparing a report about moral dilemmas in engineering. A moral dilemma is a case where one has to choose between two or more choices. Picking up one of them, people or something will suffer. We highly appreciate your participation in our survy.

Please tick or write your responses in the given space.


male female


18-2425-30 30-35

Other : ____

C- Occupation/ Major:

1- Have you heard about “moral dilemmas” before? Or in other words, did you know that this cases are called moral dilemmas? If yes, please spacify where you heard about it from.

Yes No

2- Do you know the relationship between moral dilemmas and a field of work?

Yes No

3- How often do you face a moral dilemma in your daily life?

never sometimes often always

4- When you had a moral dilemma, could you choose the lesser evil from the choices tha you had?

Yes No

5- What were the results of your moral dilemma?

very good acceptable bad disaster

6- How much do you think the world has suffered from engineering moral dilemmas?

 too much  much enough  not really much  not at all

7- Do you think Engineering moral dilemmas have a huge effects on the world?

Yes No

8- Do you think improving some softwares that are able to solve engineering moral dilemmas decreases the disaster of engineering moral dilemmas?

Yes No

9- Do you think engineering colleges have to include a course about handling moral dilemmas in their curriculum?

Yes No

10- Have you studied any course that talked about the relationship between ethics and work fields?

Yes No

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