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Engineering Ethics Case Study: The Challenger

Mark P. Rossow, PhD, PE Retired

Course Outline

This three-hour online course begins by presenting the minimum technical details needed to understand the physical cause of the Shuttle failure.  The failure itself is illustrated through NASA photographs.  Next the decision-making process—especially the discussions occurring during the teleconference held on the evening before the launch—is described.  Direct quotations from engineers interviewed after the disaster are used to illustrate the ambiguities of the data and the pressures that the decision-makers faced in the period preceding the launch.  The course ends by presenting 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.

Learning Objective

This course teaches the following specific knowledge and skills:

Intended Audience

This course is intended for all types of engineers.

Benefit to Attendees

An attendee of this course will be familiar with various types of ethical issues that can arise in a large-scale, high-profile project, and with the difficulty of distinguishing unethical behavior from technical misjudgment.  

Course Introduction

On January 28, 1986, the NASA Space Shuttle Challenger burst into a ball of flame 73 seconds after take-off, leading to the death of all seven people on board.  Some months later, a commission appointed by the President to investigate the disaster declared that the cause was the failure of a seal in one of the solid rocket boosters.  The observations and accusations of the Commission and other critics at the time taken together became the standard interpretation of the cause of the Challenger disaster.  This interpretation routinely appears in popular articles and books about engineering, management, and ethical issues when Challenger is cited as a case study.  But the interpretation ignores much of the history of how NASA and the contractor’s engineers had actually recognized and dealt with the seal problems in advance of the disaster. 

Course Content

The course materials are based on the article, “The Challenger Disaster and Engineering Ethics” by Mark P. Rossow:

Engineering Ethics Case Study: The Challenger

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Course Summary

When the details of what Challenger engineers actually thought and did are closely examined, the conventional explanation of the disaster is not supported.  An alternative explanation is that Space shuttle technology was new, complex, and hazardous.  Decision-makers thought that they understood the risks and that the risks were acceptable.  The decision-makers were mistaken.  But they were not villainous.

Related Links

For additional technical information related to this subject, please visit the following websites or web pages:


Once you finish studying the above course content, you need to take a quiz to obtain the PDH credits.

DISCLAIMER: The materials contained in the online course are not intended as a representation or warranty on the part of PDH Center or any other person/organization named herein. The materials are for general information only. They are not a substitute for competent professional advice. Application of this information to a specific project should be reviewed by a registered architect and/or professional engineer/surveyor. Anyone making use of the information set forth herein does so at their own risk and assumes any and all resulting liability arising therefrom.