Learning from NASA’s Greatest Lesson in Ethical Decision Making

I have been greatly moved by a story I heard on National Public Radio (NPR) that I felt was worthy of sharing with my colleagues at Day & Zimmermann. It is a personal story of one man’s regret, as we recently passed the 30-year memorial of the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion. To me it is an exemplary story on leadership that carries a lasting message on the values of integrity, safety and the importance of vigilance and being courageous enough to do the right thing.  In everything we do, the critical decision making we provide for the safety of our customers and colleagues, and our integrity that remains intact in all of our decisions, is what sets us apart as a company.

January 28, marked the anniversary of a major tragedy well known to the world, The Challenger, a failed NASA mission that resulted in the loss of several lives. The night before the launch, on January 27, 1986, Bob Ebeling, a former engineer for shuttle contractor Morton Thiokol and four other engineers had tried to stop the launch. Ebeling said he and his colleagues repeatedly presented data and argued their points against the launch, outlining indisputable safety threats, but were ultimately overruled by higher ranking NASA personnel. For more than 30 years, these engineers have carried the burden of knowing they did the right thing in trying to stop the launch, but were sadly overruled, resulting in a catastrophic loss. The Challenger decision has since remained an important case study used in engineering school discussions focusing on ethical decision making.

From the catastrophe of The Challenger emerges a great lesson in safe, ethical decision making through the personal record of an engineer who persistently attempted to do the right thing and act as a whistle-blower in the final hours. While Ebeling faced a true life-or-death situation no engineer ever wants to face, his story demonstrates the magnitude of our decisions and the ultimate purpose behind always speaking up and doing the right thing.    

This very moving story about safety and integrity reinforces the notion that human intervention to analyze risk and prevent accidents is key to mission success.  I encourage you to listen to the two parts of this news story which serve as a reminder of why working as a team with checks and balances, and adhering to our core values, will spell success for our mission. After the first-run story, where 89-year old Ebeling reflected on his career as a ‘failure’, he received an outpouring of public support which caused the NPR reporter to revisit the story and help Ebeling to close this chapter in his life. Even after receiving hundreds of letters from the public, Ebeling still wanted to receive closure from NASA. NPR helped to obtain a response to answer Ebeling’s request, and after 30 years NASA finally provided a statement about Ebeling and his colleagues (included below).

Statement From NASA Acting Press Secretary Stephanie L. Schierholz:

We know spaceflight always has been, and will be, risky. Every year, we in the NASA community, including civil servants and contractors, pause to reflect and honor those who gave their lives for the benefit of all humanity. We honor them not through bearing the burden of their loss but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant and to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up, so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions. NASA has changed in many ways as a result, including a more robust management process with more oversight, and more opportunities for independent assessments. A direct recommendation resulting from the Presidential Commission following Challenger was that NASA should establish a separate office to address safety that reports directly to the NASA Administrator. Today NASA not only has the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance but also has independent advisory boards to help ensure we minimize what spaceflight risks we can.

The crews of Challenger and Columbia embraced the risk in a shared pursuit of exploration and discovery. We honor them by making our dreams of a better tomorrow reality and taking advantage of the fruits of exploration to improve life for people everywhere. Mr. Ebeling is part of the NASA community. We encourage him to join us in honoring their sacrifice and recognizing the differences their lives made, especially in NASA's approach to safety. We would welcome him at any of our Day of Remembrance activities.