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Engineering Ethics Case Study: The Challenger Disaster

Mark P. Rossow, Ph.D, PE Retired

This course provides instruction in engineering ethics through a case study of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Conventional explanations for the disaster cite an irresponsible failure in communication—lower level engineers failed to inform managers adequately about the seriousness of problems with the O-ring seals—or unscrupulous managers risking the safety of the flight crew in order to meet launch schedules and maintain government funding. Drawing on meticulous research of scholars who studied the actual work of the engineers involved in Challenger, this course shows that the conventional explanations are not supported by the historical record. The technology was new, complex, and hazardous. Decision makers were competent and honest. They were well aware of problems with the seals, but they judged the risk to be acceptable. In retrospect we know that they were mistaken, but understanding the severity of the problem at the time was not at all the simple matter that later critics made it out to be. The course culminates in an extended treatment of six ethical issues raised by Challenger.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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NY PE & PLS: You must choose courses that are technical in nature or related to matters of laws and ethics contributing to the health and welfare of the public. NY Board does not accept courses related to office management, risk management, leadership, marketing, accounting, financial planning, real estate, and basic CAD. Specific course topics that are on the borderline and are not acceptable by the NY Board have been noted under the course description on our website.