Thursday, February 09, 2006

Morton-Thiokol's Involvement After the Challenger Disaster

In class we have been talking a lot about the "burden of proof" and Morton-Thiokol's role in the Challenger disaster. After watching the videos, and actually hearing the manager's arguments as to why they decided to overrule the engineers just baffles me completely. A question came up in class that asked if Morton-Thiokol continued to work with NASA, and are they still in business today, which I thought was a very interesting question. I wanted to look into more about the idea, but I thought first I should provide a little background on the burden of proof and Morton-Thiokol's role to truly understand how intriguing the question was.

Before the Challenger had launched, NASA's engineers found a potential deadly problem with the O-rings. Both NASA engineers and engineers from Morton-Thiokol (the contractor who built the O-rings) argued that under the currently freezing weather conditions, it would be unsafe to launch. At the time NASA's had a safety policy that they called the "burden of proof." The "burden of proof" stated that if someone can prove that there is a problem, defect, or something is unsafe then in order to continue they must first prove without a reasonable doubt that there is no problem. Meaning that you don't have to prove that anything is unsafe, but you have to prove IT IS SAFE, before any type of launch or progress is made.

This policy called the "burden of proof" was twisted around the night before the launch of the Challenger. NASA changed there safety procedures, "burden of proof," and said that the engineers would have to prove to management that it was unsafe to launch as scheduled. Morton-Thiokol had told NASA that it was UNSAFE to launch under the current weather conditions because of the usually cold weather. NASA having never being told by a contractor not to launch, was suspicious of why all of a sudden Morton-Thiokol engineers were bringing up the safety issues of the O-rings. After a long debate between upper management, it was decided to go on with the launch and ignore the engineers who promised disaster if they launched Challenger as scheduled. As we all now know, Challenger exploded because of the O-rings, and freezing temperatures.

This brings me back to the question I asked before, does Morton-Thiokol still exist today and work for NASA. When I typed Morton-Thiokol into Google I was brought to a website, that called themselves ATK. I was confused as to if the company had changed names or if I was even at the correct website. When I searched further I found a company history on Morton-Thiokol from There it was said on that website that O-rings that caused the Challenger to explode, which were produced by Morton-Thiokol, and that after the disaster in 1989 Morton-Thiokol split into two separate companies. Morton split into a primarily chemically concerned company, while Thiokol took over propulsion systems. If you click on the link to Wikipedia, you can see that Thiokol merged again, and now are referred to as the ATK or Alliant Techsystems, which controls a huge share of the US rocket market. It is interesting that the company split soon after the Challenger disaster, but if you look on the ATK website you will find a picture of a rocket with NASA written on it. Which leads me to assume that NASA is still using ATK as a contractor for rockets. As you can see, ATK and NASA are still working together in space exploration, even after the Challenger disaster. Which I find very surprising and interesting since they experienced so much miscommunication and tragedy with the Challenger incident.