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Two Historic Failures of Ethics in Engineering

Two Historic Failures of Ethics in Engineering

A Space Shuttle on the launch pad, against a dark sky

The human drive to explore leads us to take enormous risks. Ancient seafarers ventured beyond any location they could see on maps; mountaineers still climb above the clouds; astronauts defy gravity to investigate the stars. Each time, they accept danger as the price of the benefits they hope to claim. When the risk/reward balance brings us out ahead, hindsight enables us to minimize past dangers and focus on the prizes gained: knowledge, power, fame, and so on. When the risks and potential rewards are still in front of us, however, we’re not always clearly able to see the tipping point—or to prioritize it.

For engineers, maintaining that sense of priority is essential. As stated in the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Ethics, “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:

  1. Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
  2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.
  3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  4. Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
  5. Avoid deceptive acts.
  6. Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.”1

Read on to explore two instances in which failure of these ethics resulted in catastrophe and profound loss.

The Space Shuttle Challenger

Operated by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Space Shuttle Program flew 135 missions of partially reusable spacecraft between 1981 and 2011. Collectively, Space Shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour repeatedly carried people into orbit; launched, recovered and repaired satellites; conducted leading research and built the International Space Station: the largest structure in space.2

Challenger: Ethical Dilemma

On January 27, 1986, five engineers at the NASA contractor Morton Thiokol tried to postpone the next day’s launch of Space Shuttle Challenger.

At the time, NASA was trying to establish the Space Shuttle as a regular, dependable means of conducting scientific and commercial space missions, and its launch schedule was ambitious. Teachers and students in classrooms nationwide were anticipating a live broadcast of the first science class taught from space. The State of the Union address was to take place on February 4, and President Ronald Reagan planned to mention the Challenger launch as an achievement of the space program.

As reported by National Public Radio (NPR), Morton Thiokol was a Utah-based company “that produced the solid rocket motors that lifted space shuttles from their launch pads. The rockets were like stacked metal cans stuffed with highly explosive propellant. The forces of liftoff tended to pull the cans apart slightly where they joined. Rubber o-rings lined those joints and kept burning propellant from leaking out.”3

Testing on o-rings had yielded mixed results since as far back as 1977. NASA post-flight evaluation had found o-ring erosion on Space Shuttle missions in 1981, 1984 and 1985. Morton Thiokol engineers determined that cold temperatures caused the o-rings to lose flexibility, which lessened their ability to seal the field joints. This allowed hot gas and soot to flow past the primary o-ring.4

In January 1986, multiple Thiokol engineers “knew that cold overnight temperatures forecast before launch would stiffen the rubber o-rings,” reported NPR. “They knew that stiff o-rings didn't provide a secure seal.”3 The next day’s temperatures would make the event the coldest Space Shuttle launch in history. Certain that it was too cold and expecting o-ring failures at liftoff, the Thiokol engineers presented data about earlier low-temperature launches, including evidence of "blowby"—the leakage that results when field joints aren’t fully sealed. In support of their engineers, Thiokol managers formally recommended to NASA that the launch be postponed.

Challenger: Decisions Made

According to one of the engineers and as reported by NPR, NASA's rocket engineer, Lawrence B. Mulloy, “reacted to the resistance this way: ‘My God, Thiokol. When do you want me to launch? Next April?’ That turned the tide of the discussion. The Thiokol managers pressed their engineers to reverse themselves. When that failed, the managers simply overruled them, and submitted their own launch recommendation.”3

Challenger: Results

On January 28, 1986, NASA launched its 25th Space Shuttle flight, the 10th flight of Challenger, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The crew included schoolteacher Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a chosen participant in the Teacher In Space program and the first teacher to go into space. The full crew was comprised of payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe, mission specialist Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist Judith A. Resnik, mission commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee and pilot Mike J. Smith. According to NASA, they “represented a cross-section of the American population in terms of race, gender, geography, background, and religion.”5 They were scheduled to deploy a communications satellite and study Halley's Comet while in orbit.

At 11:39 a.m. ET, 73 seconds into its flight, Challenger broke apart and disintegrated 46,000 feet (8.7 miles) over the Atlantic Ocean. This first fatal accident involving an American spacecraft in flight killed all seven crew members.

NPR reported, “As the spacecraft began an expected roll, the forces on the solid rocket motors began to pull one of them apart. The cold and stiff o-rings at one joint didn't flex and seal as designed. Searing hot gasses escaped. In an instant, the sky was filled with smoke and debris.”3

On its website, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum offers this explanation: “A rubber seal between two segments of one solid rocket booster had failed, and propellant gases and flame had burned through the side of the booster like a blowtorch. As the flame began to impinge on the lower external tank, the booster also began to twist on its attachments to the tank. These two events caused the tank to collapse, and the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen instantly mixed, igniting in a flash. What looked like an explosion was actually the result, not the cause, of the catastrophe.”6

The site goes on to say, “Months later, when the Presidential Commission on the Challenger Accident released its report, a more complex set of causes was identified. Most of them had to do with human error in understanding data, communicating, making decisions, and becoming complacent about safety. The commission determined that the Challenger tragedy had been ‘an accident waiting to happen’ that was not averted because NASA had a ‘broken safety culture.’”6

The Titan Submersible

Underwater wreckage of the RMS Titanic

On April 15, 1912, the British ocean liner RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean. Since then, expert divers have risked their lives to explore the ship’s wreckage. In 2023, five people did so again. They boarded a submersible, first called Cyclops 2 and later renamed Titan, that was owned and operated by a company called OceanGate.

Before co-founding OceanGate in 2009, Stockton Rush had become a commercial jet pilot; he had also earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and an MBA. In founding the company, he set out to “bring tourists to the ocean world.”7 He told Smithsonian Magazine in 2019 that, “I wanted to be Captain Kirk on the Enterprise. I wanted to explore.”8

Titan: Ethical Dilemma

The many decisions and events that led to the Titan disaster go back several years. In 2023, Ben Taub wrote a thorough, detailed exploration of them for The New Yorker. They include but are not at all limited to the ones that follow here.

Hull Construction

Rush had Titan’s main body made from carbon fibre that was known to be too weak to reach the Titanic wreckage’s depth. While titanium gradually grows stronger under repeated, intense stress, carbon fibre breaks down under pressure testing. Quoting Patrick Lahey, CEO of Triton Submarines, Taub wrote, “There’s a reason that Triton and other manufacturers don’t use carbon fibre in their hulls. Under compression, ‘it’s a capricious [expletive] material, which is the last [expletive] thing you want to associate with a pressure boundary.’”7

Vessel Shape

He had the submersible built in a shape that couldn’t withstand water pressure at that depth. Although most submersibles are built spherically, to stay suspended underwater, Titan was built with a cylindrical midsection so it could hold more people. “’You don’t do the coolest thing you’re ever going to do in your life by yourself,’ Rush told an audience at the GeekWire Summit [in 2022]. ‘You take your wife, your son, your daughter, your best friend. You’ve got to have four people’ besides the pilot.”7

Vessel Control

He had the submersible rigged to be run, via Bluetooth connection, from a single PlayStation 3 controller. As veteran Titanic expedition leader Rob McCallum told Taub, “Every sub in the world has hardwired controls for a reason—that if the signal drops out, you’re not [expletive].”7

An Unclassed Sub

He chose not to have the submersible classed by any marine-safety agency—that is, it wasn’t examined or certified as being seaworthy. McCallum noted, “Never get in an unclassed sub. I wouldn’t do it, and you shouldn’t, either.”7

No One Is a Passenger

It is illegal to transport passengers in an unclassed, experimental submersible, but “if you kill a passenger,” McCallum told Taub, “you’re in big trouble. And so everyone was classified as a ‘mission specialist.’ There were no passengers—the word ‘passenger’ was never used.”7

Hiring Engineers

Rush hired inexperienced engineers to build the vessel’s electrics. A source at OceanGate told Taub that, “several of the engineers were in their late teens and early 20s and were at one point being paid $15 an hour.”6 In speaking to his college newspaper about Titan in 2018, a 2017 graduate said, “The whole electrical system—that was our design, we implemented it and it works.”9

Staffing the Vessel

He sought out unqualified people to captain the submersible. “Rush asked OceanGate’s director of finance and administration whether she’d like to take over as chief submersible pilot. ‘It freaked me out that he would want me to be head pilot,’” she told Taub, “‘since my background is in accounting.’”7

Avoiding U.S. Governance

Rush saw to it that Titan would be operated outside of United States jurisdiction. “In a legal filing, the company reported that the submersible was ‘being developed and assembled in Washington, but will be owned by a Bahamian entity, will be registered in the Bahamas and will operate exclusively outside the territorial waters of the United States.’”7

Hearing from Experts

Hired by OceanGate in 2015 as director of marine operations and chief submersible pilot, Scotland’s David Lochridge had three decades of global experience as a submersible pilot and engineer. When he was hired, OceanGate moved him and his family to Washington and helped with his application for a green card.

Before Stockton Rush turned Titan over to OceanGate’s operations team, he directed Lochridge to inspect it. According to Lochridge’s job description, he was required to sign off on Titan’s readiness for deployment.

“On January 18, 2018, Lochridge studied each major component, and found several critical aspects to be defective or unproven. He drafted a detailed report … and attached photographs of the elements of greatest concern.

  • Glue was coming away from the seams of ballast bags, and mounting bolts threatened to rupture them
  • Both sealing faces had errant plunge holes and o-ring grooves that deviated from standard design parameters
  • The exostructure and electrical pods used different metals, which could result in galvanic corrosion when exposed to seawater
  • The thruster cables posed ‘snagging hazards’
  • The iridium satellite beacon, to transmit the submersible’s position after surfacing, was attached with zip ties
  • The flooring was highly flammable; the interior vinyl wrapping emitted ‘highly toxic gasses upon ignition’

To assess the carbon-fibre hull, Lochridge examined a small cross-section of material. He found that it had ‘very visible signs of delamination and porosity’—it seemed possible that, after repeated dives, it would come apart. He shone a light at the sample from behind, and photographed beams streaming through splits in the midsection in a disturbing, irregular pattern. The only safe way to dive, Lochridge concluded, was to first carry out a full scan of the hull.”7

He sent his report to Rush and the OceanGate leadership the next day. “‘Verbal communication of the key items I have addressed in my attached document have been dismissed on several occasions, so I feel now I must make this report so there is an official record in place,’ he wrote. ‘Until suitable corrective actions are in place and closed out, Cyclops 2 (Titan) should not be manned during any of the upcoming trials.’”7

Also in 2018, expedition leader Rob McCallum emailed Rush directly. “’You are wanting to use a prototype un-classed technology in a very hostile place. As much as I appreciate entrepreneurship and innovation, you are potentially putting an entire industry at risk.’”7

“That spring, more than three dozen industry experts sent a letter to OceanGate, expressing their ‘unanimous concern’ about its upcoming Titanic expedition—for which it had already sold places.”7

Titan: Decisions Made

The day after receiving David Lochridge’s assessment, Rush held a meeting and recorded it. For two hours, OceanGate leadership denied the need for hull testing. Lochridge was fired.

Four days after McCallum’s email, Rush replied. He had “’grown tired of industry players who try to use a safety argument to stop innovation and new entrants from entering their small existing market.’” He understood that his approach was unorthodox, “but that is the nature of innovation. We have heard the baseless cries of ‘you are going to kill someone’ way too often. I take this as a serious personal insult.’”6 Soon thereafter, Taub reported, “Rush asked McCallum to work for him—then threatened him with a lawsuit, in an effort to silence him, when he declined.”7

Meanwhile, Lochridge alerted the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) of his termination, asserting retaliation for the safety concerns he had voiced. When OceanGate was notified, Lochridge was summoned to court: “He had ten days to withdraw his OSHA claim and pay OceanGate almost $10,000 in legal expenses. Otherwise, OceanGate would sue him, take measures to destroy his professional reputation, and accuse him of immigration fraud.”7

OceanGate didn’t make any dives to the Titanic wreckage for the next three years. It seems that the company spent the time testing materials and revising the carbon-fibre hull. It’s hard to know exactly what tests they conducted and how many hulls were made, and by whom, “because Rush’s public statements are deeply unreliable. He claimed … to have design and testing partnerships with Boeing and NASA, and that at least one iteration of the hull would be built at the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama. But none of those things were true.”7

In 2021, Stockton Rush expressed his wish to be remembered as an innovator. ”I think it was General MacArthur who said, ‘You’re remembered for the rules you break.’ And I’ve broken some rules to make [Titan]. The carbon fibre and titanium? There’s a rule you don’t do that. Well, I did.”7

Titan: Results

On June 18, 2023, five people boarded Titan: Stockton Rush, British billionaire Hamish Harding, Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, his nineteen-year-old son Suleman, and French submariner, former naval commander and Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet. Equipped with a 96-hour oxygen supply in case of emergency, they intended to explore the wreckage of the Titanic. They’d travel some 12,500 feet (2.36 miles) below the surface, off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.

Before they reached the ocean floor, however, as Titan approached a depth of 11,500 feet (2.17 miles), it vanished, losing communication and tracking before imploding. As detailed by experts and reported in The New Yorker, the force of the implosion “would have been so violent that everyone on board would have died before the water touched their bodies.”7

“You can’t cut corners in the deep,” McCallum had told Rush. “It’s not about being a disruptor. It’s about the laws of physics.”7

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  1. Retrieved on March 7, 2024, from
  2. Retrieved on March 7, 2024, from
  3. Retrieved on March 7, 2024, from
  4. Retrieved on March 7, 2024, from McDonald, Allan J.; Hansen, James R. (2009). Truth, Lies, and O-rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. University Press of Florida.
  5. Retrieved on March 7, 2024, from
  6. Retrieved on March 7, 2024, from
  7. Retrieved on March 7, 2024, from
  8. Retrieved on March 7, 2024, from
  9. Retrieved on March 7, 2024, from

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