Two Kinds of Courage

The bravery of Allan McDonald

The morning of January 28, 1986, NASA proceeded through the final launch checklist for the Challenger space shuttle. Only a handful of people fully appreciated the disaster that loomed.

This was the third time they had scheduled the launch that week, the prior launches having been scrapped for unflattering reasons. (The first delay was for predicted bad weather that never materialized and the second for a failed hatch mechanism.) The pressure to launch on the third try was intense. NASA struggled with the perception that it wasted taxpayer funds, and the White House wanted to feature the shuttle in President Reagan’s State of the Union address. So when a coldfront bringing record low temperatures to Florida settled in the night before, NASA called all of its suppliers to ensure that a below-freezing launch would be safe.

The infamous conversation between NASA and Morton Thiokol, maker of the shuttle booster rockets, is rehearsed in ethics classes around the world. The executives overruled their engineers by approving the launch and sealed the tragic fate of the seven Challenger crew members before they ever entered the shuttle.

Allan McDonald—who passed away on Saturday—was one of the good guys. He was Thiokol’s representative in Florida, and was fully aware of the dangers being overlooked. His role in the Challenger story demonstrated the two kinds of ethical courage that everyone needs at some point:

  1. Momentous Courage. This is the courage that movie scenes are made of, the kind that comes in a single moment of decision. Prior to launch, all of the key NASA suppliers had on-site representatives there to give the green light. McDonald refused. It was disruptive and embarrassing to his employer, who instead signed off via fax from a company executive. That one act could easily have cost McDonald his career. He later called it the best decision he ever made.

  2. Enduring Courage. Less dramatic but just as important, enduring courage is the kind that persists in the face of resistance. Twelve days after the disaster, McDonald found himself at the commission hearing investigating the disaster. From the audience, he stood up to contradict a Thiokol engineer’s testimony. McDonald ended up giving his own evidence that ensured huge consequences for his employer, and thus to many friends and loved ones who also worked there. He was demoted for blowing the whistle until members of Congress threatened to ban Thiokol from future contracts.

Professor Mark Maier of Chapman University worked extensively with Allan McDonald in the years that followed. Here’s what he had to say about McDonald:

“There are two ways in which his actions were heroic. One was on the night before the launch, refusing to sign off on the launch authorization and continuing to argue against it. And then afterwards in the aftermath, exposing the cover-up that NASA was engaged in.”

All of us will eventually need both kinds of courage, the momentous and the enduring, to make the right thing happen. We can be grateful for Allan McDonald’s example to show us the way.

(You can read all about McDonald’s experience in his book, Truth, Lies, and O-Rings.)


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Seeing Good at Work

STEM fields are still dominated by men, here in the US and around the world. McKinsey released this 2018 report, identifying potential solutions through philanthropy and CSR. There is plenty to do. Girls in Tech works with partners around the globe to get more girls on the path to STEM careers.

One of their partners, Chicas en Tecnología, operates in Argentina and has established over 100 programs in schools around the country. Its founder, Melina Masnatta, was made an Ashoka fellow in 2018.

Finally, a shout-out to my incredibly intelligent niece Isabel, who is a student at Caltech and just the kind of woman we need more of in STEM careers. 😁

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Our ethics training company, Merit Leadership, offers free monthly webinars. One of them is today (March 9) at 10am MT. The speaker, Bill O’Rourke, is a former Alcoa executive and my coauthor on The Business Ethics Field Guide. Visit our events page to see this and upcoming webinars as they are posted.