Engineering ethics: Balancing cost, schedule, and risk?lessons learned from the space shuttle

Engineering ethics: Balancing cost, schedule, and risk?lessons learned from the space shuttle
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  Engineering Ethics: Balancing Cost, Schedule, and Risk--LessonsLearned from the Space Shuttle (review) Pritchard, Michael S.Technology and Culture, Volume 41, Number 1, January 2000, pp.164-166 (Article)Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/tech.2000.0030  For additional information about this article  Access Provided by Malakand, University of at 03/07/13 7:02PM GMT  the Georgia Institute ofTechnology.Van Nostrand might also seem some-what optimistic about genuine “merger”between the defense and civiliantechnology bases.But ifthat outcome does come to define research anddevelopment in post-cold war America,this remarkable book will certainly have made a major contribution. JACOB VANDER MEULEN Dr.Vander Meulen teaches in the Department ofHistory at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Engineering Ethics: Balancing Cost, Schedule, and Risk—LessonsLearned from the Space Shuttle. By Rosa Lynn B.Pinkus et al.Cambridge and New York:Cambridge University Press,1997.Pp.xviii+379;figures,appendixes,notes,bibliography,index.$70.00 (hardcover);$27.95 (paper). This book approaches engineering ethics from the perspective ofpracticingengineers.It does so by documenting the historical development ofthemain engines ofthe space shuttle from 1969 to the fateful Challenger  explo-sion of1986.Although the book might be viewed as presenting historicaldocumentation ofthe various factors that ultimately resulted in the Challenger  disaster,it would be a mistake to see this as its basic aim.Rather,the goal is to demonstrate a methodological approach to the more generalsubject ofengineering ethics.The book advocates an interdisciplinary approach that pays very careful attention to the historical,political,organi-zational,and technical dimensions ofparticular engineering contexts thatcall for ethical reflection and decision making.In arguing for this approach the authors take full advantage ofthematerial available on the development ofNASA’s space shuttle program.This enables them to present a detailed account ofthe role ofengineers ina very large,complicated project over a long period oftime.In addition toits wealth ofhistorical and technical information,the book presents a seriesoffive case studies based on this information.Only the last ofthese casesdiscusses the Challenger  disaster.Written as a practical book, Engineering Ethics is intended for engineers,managers,professional ethicists,and students.It focuses on the everyday decisions engineers and managers make as they design,test,and put tech-nologies into operation.The authors characterize engineering as a heuris-tic skill practiced before “all the facts are in”—estimating risks,balancingbudgets and deadlines—rather than an applied science.Just as the authors do not regard engineering simply as the practicalapplication ofscientific theory,they do not regard engineering ethics sim-ply as the practical application ofphilosophical ethics.Here the authorstake a lesson from the casuistic approach to medical ethics that begins withcases and brings in abstract moral principles and theories only ifcareful TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE JANUARY2000VOL. 41 164  analysis ofthe details ofa given case seem to call for this.Thus,taking theircue from Abert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin’s  Abuse of Casuistry  (Berkeley:University ofCalifornia Press,1988),they embrace the bottom-up ratherthan top-down approach.This does not mean that they eschew ethical principles.The authorsoffer three framing principles,each ofwhich they claim is grounded inengineering practice rather than abstract ethical theory.The first is a prin-ciple ofcompetence,requiring the application ofengineering expertise tothe problems at hand.The second is a principle ofresponsibility,empha-sizing the responsibility to communicate knowledge effectively,makingbest use ofinformation acquired through engineering expertise.The thirdis what the authors call “Cicero’s Creed II,”which expresses a commitmentto reduce risk and failure and to promote public safety.Each ofthese principles can be applied at both individual and organi-zational levels.The authors adapt Herbert A.Simon’s theory oforganiza-tional behavior to their historical account ofthe development ofthe spaceshuttle main engine.For Simon,organizations have a kind ofcollectiverationality based on their hierarchical structure,with each level being anend relative to those below it and a means relative to levels above it.In eval-uating organizational operations,Simon’s key notion is “satisficing”ratherthan “maximizing”values;feasibility,not optimization,is the appropriategoal in complex organizational hierarchies.This notion is then used toassess how well cost,schedule,and risk trade-offs fared in the developmentofthe space shuttle main engine.The first several chapters develop the authors’methodologicalassumptions in great detail.Part 2 ofthe book (chapters 5–13) presentstechnical and political background as well as the five case studies.Thesecases discuss “all up”vs.component testing;cost,risk,and schedule trade-offs;the dissenting voice ofengineer A.O.Tischler,who was critical of many ofthese trade-offs;congressional investigations ofNASA’s assump-tions about testing and reporting its progress;and,finally,the Challenger  disaster itself.In their preface,the authors define ethics as critical reflection aboutwhy one acts and what one does.As long as this critical reflection focuseson normative questions about what one ought to do,what obligations onehas,and the like,this seems acceptable.By and large,the authors do havesuch normative questions in mind.However,first it is essential to explainwhat has or has not happened and why.For example,they describe NASA’sshift from component to all-up testing,pointing out both the resultingincrease in risk taking and the difficulties all-up testing presents in diag-nosing the causes offailures.Then they draw their ethical conclusion thatthe shift was made unjustifiably for economic reasons rather than from theperspective offraming principles ofcompetence,responsibility,andCicero’s Creed II. BOOK REVIEWS 165  At the outset the authors say that Engineering Ethics is meant to givereaders an inside view ofwhat it was like to have “been there”to makeimportant decisions about the development ofthe space shuttle mainengine.The book does not attempt to present the perspective ofthe so-called moral expert.Instead,it is intended to aid the moral imagination of practicing engineers and to provide a framework within which they canexercise their own moral expertise in communicating with other profes-sionals about their ethical concerns.As a detailed study ofethical issues arising in the space shuttle program, Engineering Ethics is quite successful.The methodology it offers is quitehelpful in organizing and analyzing those ethical issues.Will this method-ology work well in other cases as well? Although the book discusses every-day circumstances for engineers in developing the space shuttle mainengine,this was anything but an everyday engineering project.Readersmight wonder whether the sort ofapproach used in analyzing this extraor-dinary project will work for the more mundane world ofmost engineers.Itwould have been helpful had the authors attempted a few smaller scaleanalyses as well.Nevertheless,the patient and detailed case-driven approach the authorsrecommend seems appropriate.It acknowledges the importance both of understanding the actual context within which engineering judgments aremade and ofmaking use ofnormative principles familiar in engineeringpractice.In any case,  Engineering Ethics is a good read and a welcome con-tribution to the growing literature ofengineering ethics. MICHAEL S. PRITCHARD Dr.Pritchard is professor ofphilosophy and director ofthe Center for the Study ofEthics inSociety at Western Michigan University. Spaceflight Revolution: NASA Langley Research Center from Sputnikto Apollo. By James R.Hansen.Washington,D.C.:National Aeronautics and SpaceAdministration,1995.Pp.xxxi+542;illustrations,figures,notes,index.$30. Spaceflight Revolution is the sequel to James Hansen’s excellent book on theNational Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’Langley AeronauticalLaboratory from 1917 to 1958,  Engineer in Charge —but with a twist.Whereas the earlier book dealt almost exclusively with aeronautics,  Space- flight Revolution deals specifically with the National Aeronautics and SpaceAdministration’s successor to the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory—theLangley Research Center—and its important contributions to spaceflightfrom 1958 to 1975.Hansen painstakingly,evenhandedly,and affectionately depictsLangley’s transition from aeronautical research to an increasingly projects- TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE JANUARY2000VOL. 41 166
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