Volume 10, Issue 1, Fall 2006
Technology and Normativity
From Challenger to Columbia
What lessons can we learn from the accident investigation board for engineering ethics.
One of the most important tasks of engineering ethics is to give engineers the tools required to act ethically to prevent possible disastrous accidents which could result from engineers’ decisions and actions. The space shuttle Challenger disaster is referred to as a typical case in almost every textbook. This case is seen as one from which engineers can learn important lessons, as it shows impressively how engineers should act as professionals, to prevent accidents. The Columbia disaster came seventeen years later in 2003. According to the report of the Columbia accident investigation board, the main cause of the accident was not individual actions which violated certain safety rules but rather was to be found in the history and culture of NASA. A culture is seen as one which desensitized
managers and engineers to potential hazards as they dealt with problems of uncertainty. This view of the disaster is based on Dian Vaughan’s analysis of the Challenger disaster, where inherent organizational factors and culture within NASA had been highlighted as contributing to the disaster. Based on the insightful analysis of the Columbia report and the work of Diane Vaughan, we search for an alternative view of engineering ethics. We focus on the inherent uncertainty of engineers’ work with respect to hazard precaution. We discuss claims that the concept of professional responsibility, which plays a central role in orthodox engineering ethics, is too narrow and that we need a broader and more fundamental concept of responsibility. Responsibility which should be attributed to every person related to an organization and therefore given the range of responsible persons, governments, managers, engineers, etc. might be called “civic virtue”. Only on the basis of this broad concept of responsibility of civic virtue, we can find a possible way to prevent disasters and reduce the hazards that seem to be inseparable part of the use of complex technological systems.