Design of a USB Connected Multi-Language Touchpad; A Care Ethics Analysis of the Mars Climate Orbiter Failure

Chandra, Rohan, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Laugelli, Benjamin, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Powell, Harry, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Delong, Todd, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Ghosh, Avik, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia

My technical and STS work are connected through the use of Care Ethics, an ethical framework which states that one’s personal moral development is brought about by the relationships that one has with those around them. While my technical work served as an example of how using Care Ethics properly can lead to the design and implementation of thoughtful engineering, my STS research demonstrated how a lack of Care Ethics can lead to mismanaged engineering teams, and subsequent engineering failures. Although each project explores a different end of the spectrum, Care Ethics serves as the link between them.
The goal of my technical project was to design and build a USB-connected touchpad that would give users easy access to the special characters needed to type in non-English languages, which are not easily accessible on the standard QWERTY keyboard layout. The software, hardware, and outside enclosure needed for this project were all made by myself and my team members, and we were able to demonstrate our device at our Capstone Fair in the Fall of 2021. Working on this project not only gave me the chance to apply my technical knowledge in a real-world setting, but also practice my teamwork skills, such as communication and planning. We hope that those members of the community who came to see our project at the fair also realized the importance of such team skills, and also gained an appreciation for how engineering projects are designed and implemented.
My STS paper focused on how a lack of Care Ethics led to the failure of the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter mission, conducted by NASA. Throughout the missions there were instances of management showing a blatant disregard for the main tenets of Care Ethics: attentiveness, responsibility, and competence. For example, engineers who noticed that the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) was veering off of its recommended flight path were either ignored or insulted for speaking out. Furthermore, the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” model used by NASA at the time placed too much emphasis on reducing cost and time of deployment, leading to lackluster error checking and understaffed teams, which ultimately led to engineers missing the crucial software bug that led to the MCO’s failure. Had management paid more attention to the needs of their workers and to the specific technical needs of this project, NASA might have been able to avoid this disaster.
Doing both projects together allowed me to gain a complete understanding of Care Ethics, as I was simultaneously able to see the positives that the framework brings when used correctly, as well as the consequences that one may experience from disregarding it. I also noticed that each project informed the other. For example, while the Care Ethics was not originally considered in the development of my technical work, my STS research showed me that my team and I had used the framework in multiple places without even realizing it, such as when we consulted Spanish-speaking friends of ours to determine the most important characters to place on our screen. At the same time, my technical work served as an example of how Care Ethics was implemented correctly, and thus made me more aware of the Care Ethics failures made by NASA’s management team during the MCO mission. Overall these were two very successful projects, as I was able to both apply my technical knowledge and learn the importance and implementation of Care Ethics.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
care ethics, accents, language, accessibility, touchpad, USB, 3d printing

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering
Technical Advisor: Harry C. Powell Jr.
STS Advisor: Benjamin J. Laugelli
Technical Team Members: Rawan Osman, Christopher Hamilton, Emory Ducote, Pedro Rodriguez

Issued Date: