What the Challenger Space Shuttle & Two Engineers Can Teach Us About Moral Resiliency

It was one of “those” moments – a moment that everyone recalls where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.  It was January. And bitterly cold. Even in Florida.  Bright, sunny, blue skies, but cold, on the morning the Challenger Space Shuttle, carrying the first civilian space passenger, exploded and disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff. 

Drip by drip over time, the truth emerged.  Two engineers at Morton Thiokol, the company who made the booster rockets for the shuttle, refused to give last minute approval for the launch.  They were concerned that the O-rings inside the rockets would contract in the cold weather, allowing fuel to leak and causing the rockets to explode.  After some internal back and forth inside and between Morton Thiokol and NASA, the launch was approved the night before liftoff. But not by Allan McDonald, the director of the booster rocket program and Roger Boisjoly, another Morton Thiokol engineer who had expressed concerns about the safety of the launch.  Allan McDonald. Roger Boisjoly  The launch was approved by McDonald’s superiors inside Morton Thiokol, under pressure from NASA.

President Reagan quickly appointed a blue-ribbon investigative committee, reportedly telling the chairman to make sure NASA looked good. [1]   When a key witness testified that any internal dissent was resolved prior to launch, McDonald courageously stood up in the back of the hearing room, risking his entire career, and, with shaking hands, stated otherwise.[2]

You can imagine what came next for Allen McDonald and Roger Boisjoly, who were still employed at Morton Thiokol when the hearings occurred. No one wanted to go to work every day and see two living, walking reminders of the worst decision they ever made in their life.

Boisjoly left the company but McDonald stayed on, despite internal animus towards him and being relegated to backwater assignments.

Allen McDonald must have lived the rest of his career at Morton Thiokol feeling alone. Shivering from the isolation and the horror that occurred.  How could he stay at Morton Thiokol – isolated and avoided – and endure?  Why did he stay?

Allen McDonald was a morally resilient man. He knew his values. He knew what data he relied on in making values-based decisions.  And he knew that ethics – the values of a system – are powerfully driven by the culture of an organization, not its written ethics rules.   He valued his job, but he valued his personal, moral decision-making integrity more than his job. He paid a price for it.  But such was his power that his obituary, and Boisjoly’s, inspire people thirty-five years later.

Our healthcare workers and organizations faced a crisis of moral and ethical resiliency during the worst moments of the pandemic. An entity and person may have strong, internal ethical and moral processes but what happens when circumstances overwhelm the capacity of the system and individuals to meet their own ethical and moral standards?  How do they do work which impacts the lives of others when their ability to do so appropriately is compromised by situations beyond their control?

One can leave the situation, like Boisjoly did.  Or stay, like McDonald – but it takes deep personal awareness and resiliency to stay.

For organizations, it involves, a hard and honest look at what values are being compromised and an unyielding determination to immediately return to the prior values when the crisis is over.

Ethical resiliency and moral resiliency are components of ethical wisdom or wellness.  They are also necessary and powerful professional development tools.


[1] Id. McDonald

[2] Id. McDonald

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