Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
Generally, disasters lead to loss of human life and destruction of properties regardless of the duration of time of the occurrence. The space shuttle challenger crisis is an excellent example of a disaster that sweep of life within seconds. Challenger had completed nine missions being the second shuttle in space. Its first spacewalk was in 1983 with a black female astronaut. (Howell, 2022) NASA launched the shuttle challenger at precisely 11.38 am in front of media attention, which was not usual. This is because Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was on board to broadcast lessons to students.
Unfortunately, the space shuttle challenger experienced a crisis immediately after the take-off. The weather was cold and freezing. After 73 seconds of liftoff, the challenger crushed and killed seven crew members due to a significant malfunction in the presence of media personalities present during the launch (Howell, 2022). Christa’s family and millions of people watched the shuttle break into plumes of fire and smoke (“The space shuttle Challenger explodes after liftoff”, 2022). The rescue team spent weeks recovering the remains of the shuttle astronauts and the parts of the shuttle. The unidentified remains were buried at the Arlington cemetery on 20th May 1986, while the salvage crew gave the recognized bodies to families (Howell, 2022). Unfortunately, the space shuttle challenger was no more attempting to complete the 10th mission.
The events of the shuttle were shocking as there was no survivor. Having completed nine missions, the disaster while completing the tenth mission was surprising and questionable. Therefore, president Ronald Reagan was set to find out the faults of the shuttle and corrective measures for future implementation and disaster avoidance (“The space shuttle Challenger explodes after liftoff”, 2022). William led the appointed Commission rogers, Neil Armstrong and Chuck Yeager, a state’s secretary, former astronaut, and test pilot, respectively (“The space shuttle Challenger explodes after liftoff”, 2022). The investigation found faults with the O-ring seal. In the findings of the Commission, as the cause of this accident was being explained, the investigation team pointed the finger at NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making process, which led the agency into the wrong lane of violating its own safety rules.
Salience and risk
The tragedy encountered by the space shuttle challenger could have been avoided. However, the NASA fraternity failed in its 10th mission (Teitel, 2022). The Roger commission that the president set up did a thorough investigation on pieces of data to determine the root causes of the Challenger disaster. The finding of the Roger commission states that the faulty O-ring caused the disaster (Teitel, 2022). O-ring is a sensitive component that works properly at 53 degrees and above temperatures, while according to the launch pad, the temperature on the launch day was 36 degrees (Teitel, 2022). This is way below the recommended temperature, thus raising questions about NASA’s credibility. As a result of the low temperature coupled with freezing, the elasticity of the O-ring reduced. And therefore, the O-ring of the space shuttle challenger did not seal the solid rocket booster sections, causing a leak. As a result, the astronaut could not abort the flight because the fire spread fast from the solid rocket booster to the external tank and finally, to the right booster, the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen mixed and exploded the challenger (Teitel, 2022). The disaster was traumatizing to the public as it was broadcast during the launch.
The leadership and decision-making of NASA management also caused the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion. Rogers commission interviewed the decision-makers and engineers at Morton Thiokol and NASA during the investigation. The findings indicate a lack of effective communication among the two entities, which led to misinformation about NASA’s management (Teitel, 2022). The main issue of concern was the O-rings. However, NASA did not note the O-ring issue while documenting the space shuttle challenger flight-readiness (Teitel, 2022). This indicates a discrepancy between the actual events that transpired in the communication between the NASA and Thiokol members and the general public’s perception. The investigation also suggests that the NASA management was informed about the issue of the O-rings 12 hours before the launch of the shuttle challenger through a teleconference call (Teitel, 2022). The main concern of the Thiokol engineers was temperature drop leading more freezing, which is not recommended for the functionality of the O-rings. Most shockingly, on the day of the launch, icicles covered the shuttle, and the launch continued without NASA seeing the risks of the cold weather. And therefore, the flawed decision-making by NASA management to lunch the Challenger was the cause of the explosion because they had the power to delay the launch and save the seven lives and their families from psychological trauma.
Furthermore, NASA’s publicity also fueled the launch of the Challenger. The space shuttle’s main goal was to enhance Human exploration in air travel and allow reusability (Teitel, 2022). Even though NASA had diversified its operations by including women, scientists, and people of color in the space shuttle program, it failed to maintain the public interests because a few knowledgeable people understood the mission (Teitel, 2022). And therefore, very few people care about the space shuttle. NASA’s only chance to make its operation public was to launch the space shuttle on the set date to enable broadcast when students are in school. This is because Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was going to give live lessons from space, and it had to coincide with a day that students were in school (Teitel, 2022). Furthermore, NASA was to gain public interest from the broadcast as news about the broadcast would reach many people worldwide. Therefore, they could not afford to cancel the launch despite the cold weather. This was a selfish decision to make, and it focused much on the NASA brand to the public than the safety of the seven crewmembers. Besides, political factors also led to the launch because president Reagan was set to do a state union address and mention the ability of the space shuttle to do live teaching from space by Christa McAuliffe (Teitel, 2022). In addition, NASA would only approve continuous spending on the space shuttle program if the lunch continued. Therefore, NASA destroyed the little faith that the public had in their operations while looking for publicity.
The determination if a risk is worth taking is something that the NASA organization and Thiokol would have considered before deciding on the space shuttle launch. People take risks daily and only hesitate when they have confused about whether it is beneficial. In the challenger disaster case, the Thiokol management was firm about not launching initially but later decided to launch. NASA continued with the launch because their worth for risk-taking was to fulfil the organization’s goals (Reynolds, 2019). This implies that NASA and Thiokol had the same intentions to accomplish the organizational goals without considering it was worth launching the space shuttle even with an anticipated explosion. The better way to know if a risk is worth taking is by awaiting honesty on what is likely to transpire if the actions are initiated (Reynolds, 2019). This is only possible if the hazards are not ignored. The worthiness of risk can also be determined by listing the advantages and disadvantages of the risky process (Reynolds, 2019). And finally, one should ask why they need to pursue whatever action is deemed dangerous. Suppose the action is for self-acceptance and recognition. In that case, it is not worth doing. For example, NASA’s need for publicity that equal recognition and acceptance by the public fueled the space shuttle launch.
NASA also ignored an essential component that would have eliminated the impact of the disaster, which is risk management. And thus, with risks management, the NASA fraternity would have evaluated the risk and identified the key processes to minimize the impact of the space shuttle disaster. One must concentrate on environmental, product, strategic, reputation, and governance risks for complete risk management. An organization has to have a detailed ISO standard to manage these risks correctly. First, strategic risks exist in the space shuttle challenger because business decisions cause it. For example, the decision to launch the space shuttle was a strategic decision by NASA management, even if the cold temperature caused the expansion of the O-ring (Rickard, 2015). The concerns of the Thiokol engineers about flawed O-ring were ignored during decision making by Thiokol and NASA management hence causing the space shuttle explosion. Secondly, the governance risk exists in the space shuttle disaster. Governance risk occurs due to how organizations are managed and controlled by their leaders (Rickard, 2015). And therefore, a failure in governance is likely to cause risks in organizations. For example, according to Roger’s commission, organizational deviance led to the shuttle’s explosion; the management relied on political sources while making decisions in the organization. And therefore, the employee’s opinions were rendered useless to the management. The NASA management only concentrated on the date and not the risks involved with the church. The governance failure is also evident in the ineffective communication between the NASA management and Thiokol personnel. The conference call was audio, and therefore NASA was unable to understand the magnitude of the issue because they didn’t see the facial expression of the engineers (Rickard, 2015). Besides Thiokol leaving the conference meeting and withdrawing their decision of not allowing the launch, they later communicated to NASA, agreeing with the launch so that Thiokol would achieve its organizational goal. However, Thiokol kept its intention away from NASA, meaning there was no transparency and open communication between NASA and Thiokol management (Rickard, 2015). Third, the reputation risk also occurred in the space shuttle challenger because the disaster destroyed the public reputation of NASA organization. It was known by the people worldwide that Christa McAuliffe was going to conduct a live broadcast while in space because she had boarded the shuttle. McAuliffe being a civilian, her death changed the society’s perception of the United States space program and the NASA organization. As a result, the public interest in Thiokol organization also changed drastically, with its stock dropping by 11.36pc in a day (Rickard, 2015). This drop-in share affected not only Thiokol but also NASA’s subcontractors. Fourth, the product risk also arises in the space shuttle challenger. The product risk typically occurs when a product is poorly designed, making it unfit for its purpose leading to failure in meeting customers’ expectations (Rickard, 2015). And therefore, the Thiokol firm produced a poorly designed SREB O-ring that failed to fulfil its purpose, leading to seven deaths and traumatized people worldwide. NASA and Thiokol were aware of the faulty design of the O-ring coupled with the cold weather but chose to pursue their organizational goals. And finally, the environmental risk is evident in the challenger disaster. Environmental risk involves the risk that affects the environment and the living things (Rickard, 2015). The loss of the seven lives when the space shuttle exploded a few seconds after taking off is an environmental risk. The space shuttle parts, such as the cabin crew, exploded during the crash and fell into the waters, affecting the sea animals.
Normal accident theory
The space shuttle disaster occurred years ago, but still memory lingerie in many engineers’ and scientists’ minds. However, the most profound question that one would ask is, was the accident a normal accident or a component failure accident. To answer this question, one has to understand the normal accident theory. Sociologist, Charles Perrow, invented them to discover the major causes of accidents in the nuclear power stations (Hopkins, 1999). The Normal accident theory applies to inevitable accidents. According to Perrow, for a disaster to be classified as a normal accident, it must occur under a tightly coupled system that rapidly causes a disaster that leaves limited chances for human intervention (Hopkins, 1999). In contrast, a loosely coupled system has slow development of misfortunes. Therefore, human intervention can still correct the problem to change the outcome. Tightly systems are known to be automated, and therefore results cannot be corrected. Perrow concludes that accidents in the tightly coupled system and complex automation are grouped under the normal accident theory (Hopkins, 1999). Other factors that signify a normal accident theory include inaccurate reporting and organizational contradictions such as decentralization, creating complexity, and centralization enhancing coupled systems (Hopkins, 1999). For example, tightly coupled is evident in technological components.
The definition of a tightly coupled and complex system is essential in determining if the space shuttle disaster was a normal accident or not. The technological component of the space shuttle that involves the solid rocket motor, O-ring, orbiter main engine, and maneuvering system was tightly coupled and complex (Salib, 2002). The disaster does qualify for a normal accident theory. Besides, during an interview with Laureate Richard Feynman, a member of the Rogers Commission, he pointed out that a thousand experts and scientists have failed to determine the actual cause of the space shuttle explosion (Salib, 2002). Moreover, the system was complex, which hindered the bests scientist in America from finding out the precise cause of the explosion. Various interviews with the members of the Rogers commission insisted that the design was complex as it was not operational but developmental. Another indicator of a complex system was evident in the complex bureaucracy of NASA management. The space shuttle’s decision-making was left entirely to the top management, leaving out the scientific processes that yielded the space shuttle (Salib, 2002). And thus, when the management was making the launch decision of the space shuttle, the engineer’s concerns were ignored. The NASA administration reduced the advice of the engineers to minor issues even in the face of an overwhelming technological issue raised on the solid rocket motor. The faulty bureaucratic system in NASA made the people aware of the lower temperature issue continued with the launch despite its consequences because it was an order from the top management. Few workers knew the temperature requirement as the system was more complex and required worker specializations (Salib, 2002). As a result of the rigid bureaucratic system, all the vital information concerning the launch was ignored, leading to the disaster. In a memo written by the NASA deputy administrator, important decision-makers in the launch, such as Jesse Moore, were not informed about the O-ring problem (Salib, 2002). The complexity arising from the space shuttle is in the bureaucratic process and the systems development. The space shuttle also meets the criteria of tightly coupled systems. In the case of the space shuttle disaster, there was a rapid escalation of issues from the breaking of the seal caused by the expansion of the O-ring creating room for hot gases escape to escape and penetrate the external tanks (Salib, 2002). This led to the ignition of the hydrogen liquid hence the explosions. The tightness of the system is evident in that one failure escalated so fast, causing a disaster. The fact the operators were unable to carry out any human intervention to correct the mistakes in space shuttle disasters meets the criteria of a tight system.
Although the tight system and systems complexity meet the requirement of a normal accident, it fails to account for accidents anticipation. It is evident that the failure of the O-ring was well known and understood by the engineers and NASA management. For example, NASA’s top management received a memo from Boisjoly informing them that the shuttle was likely to explode during the launch because of the cold weather, yet the launch went on as planned (Salib, 2002). Besides the memo, Boisjoly went to Bob Lund a night before the to convince him to terminate the launch as it was risky, but the meeting was unsuccessful (Salib, 2002). And therefore, the NASA and Thiokol management were fully aware of the probability of the explosion of the space shuttle before the launch but again went ahead with the launch. And thus, the disaster was anticipated and failed to qualify as a normal accident.
The impact of the challenger disaster was huge as it wiped seven lives, changed public perception about space travel, and psychological torture the family members of the seven members. After the disaster, everyone involved in the space shuttle challenger program felt guilty for the disaster. Even the news outlets felt guilty for not doing their job on the space shuttle program (Harris, 2019). If only they had been more aggressive about the launch, they would have discovered the miscommunication issue between NASA and Thiokol company. Among the Thiokol engineers who have blamed themselves for the occurrence of the challenger, the disaster is Ebeling despite his efforts to stop the launch (Berkes, 2016). Thirty years after the disaster, Ebeling still had the guilt of not taking proper action to let the public know of the facts about the challenger disaster (Berkes, 2016).
Even though the Thiokol engineers, NASA personnel, and the news bodies feel guilty for the challenger disaster, those responsible for the Challenger disaster are NASA management and ethical management. According to the findings of the Rogers commission, management problems of NASA and Thiokol caused the shuttle disaster as they failed to attend to the rocket joint faults (Boffey, 1986). Besides, the commission also realized that the space agency managers had information that recommended the faulty booster rocket be fixed five months before the launch (Boffey, 1986). However, Thiokol management failed. The Rogers commission reported a series of managerial mistakes, failure to implement safety information, inadequate quality control programs, and the refusal to correct the problem with the solid booster rockets. Furthermore, Thiokol company that had a manufactured solid booster rocket, failed to show any initiative for correcting the faults in their product in the late 1970s and refused to improve on it despite the request from this engineer for quicker actions (Boffey, 1986). Therefore, the Rogers commission issued NASA with 11 recommendations on the management flaws and faulty rocket joint and submitted a report to President Reagan’s administration after a year to showcase the progress made in executing the recommendations (Boffey, 1986). NASA’s agreement to work on the commission’s proposal shows its willingness to take responsibility for its actions.
The space shuttle disaster could have been avoided right from the start. According to the Roger Commission investigation, the space shuttle disaster was caused by bad decisions and miscommunication between the management of NASA and Thiokol (Veliz, 2021). Bob Ebeling, a Thiokol engineer, was much concerned about the malfunctioning of the O-ring in the cold weather. He informed the management of Thiokol and NASA about the issue, and they ignored it (Veliz, 2021). The publicity boosts NASA also fueled the launch date on a cold Tuesday morning as McAuliffe was set to give live lessons from space on Friday’s fourth day. The organizational goal of Thiokol, political benefits, and publicity for NASA are why the launch had to happen on the exact day that it was scheduled. However, this is not the case. The management of Thiokol and NASA could have prevented the disaster by doing the launch any other day of the week apart from that Tuesday, as it was cold and would result in the malfunctioning of the O-ring (Veliz, 2021). Furthermore, the people in charge of the launch, Gene Thomas and Jesse Moore, were not informed of the NASA Thiokol meeting on the O-ring problem and the cold weather (Harris, 2019). The disaster could have been prevented by making a phone call to notify them of the probability of the malfunctioning of the O-ring (Harris, 2019). They might have decided to delay the launch until the weather normalized. Despite the knowledge about the O-ring malfunctioning in cold weather, NASA failed to document rules and regulations that manage flights regarding temperature (Harris, 2019). If the proper guidelines of space travel existed concerning temperatures, then NASA and Thiokol management would not have fooled the public by hiding the facts and continuing with the launch for their selfish gain. After the shuttle disaster, the space program changed. Flying civilians in space were prohibited for 22 years (Howell, 2022). This is because McAuliffe died in the Challenger disaster. There was a shift in satellite launches from the shuttle to rockets (Howell, 2022). In addition, other astronauts were laid off such as this, responsible for repairing satellites and the maneuvering unit to preserve their safety. The space shuttle program ended in 2011 after having successful flights amounting to 133 and two disasters in 2003, Columbia and 1986 challenger (Harris, 2019). Since the challenger disaster space has evolved to prevent disasters in the future. The Kennedy space center has incorporated adequate infrastructure and crew modules (Harris, 2019). Despite the challenger incident that terrified NASA management, they maintained their confidence in the future of space.
Hazard analysis from disaster helped people learn from the events of an accident. Tragedy tends to affect people’s psychological health because they occur without warnings, causing personal safety threats and diminished health conditions when the accident is severe (Flynn, 1997). The challenger disaster did occur without a bit of caution to the public. And therefore, the death of the civilian teacher boarding for the first time and the seven astronauts was a psychological trauma to the public. Factors that determine the severity of psychological trauma include the level of exposure to the disaster and the magnitude of the impact (Flynn, 1997). Losing life, economic loss, physical injuries, and destruction of the environment could equate to a loss in a disaster. For example, in the challenger disaster, seven lives were lost in a twinkle of an eye, and the atmosphere was littered with the particles of the explosion.
The leading cause of the Challenger disaster was management negligence in decision making and failure to initiate safety programs. And therefore, there are various lessons from the challenger disaster. First, it is good to listen to experts (Silverman, 2021). The NASA management failed to listen to the O-ring issues tabled then by the expert engineers who designed the space shuttle. The challenger’s launching had previously been delayed, and management could not afford to delay the launch. The political pressure and desire to meet organizational goals made the experts’ opinions on the launch seem useless. Generally, before making a decision, the management team should assess the risk of various actions, and when the results of the threat are disastrous, one avoids the risks (Silverman, 2021). Unfortunately, NASA could only do the risk analysis with the experts who were not given much attention by NASA management.
Secondly, an open culture is essential for most organizations. For example, if the NASA organization had accepted an open culture, it would have effective bureaucracy (Silverman, 2021). In addition, open culture has leaders welcoming employees’ decision-making inputs (Silverman, 2021). However, this failed to happen in NASA because the Political resources controlled most of the decisions. According to Travis and open culture, employees can respectfully challenge their employer and colleagues, understand a situation, and have buy-in (Silverman, 2021). As a result, most people feel involved and accepted in an organization. Besides, the open culture focuses mainly on attacking critical issues that raise the organization’s eyebrows. And therefore, if the NASA organization had an open challenge culture, its management would have listened to the opinion of the employees regarding the launch hence minimizing the probability of the occurrence of the challenger disaster.
Thirdly it is crucial to point out facts even when they seem unfavorable. The investigation done by Roger’s commission would have left out critical points in its report if Feynman did not intervene. Instead, Feynman tabled his issues of a rigid culture, ineffective communication, and lack of understanding using a minority report (Silverman, 2021). This is also on to employees and lone wolves in an organization to strive and voice their options so that everyone can acknowledge the reality. Organizations management can also learn leadership skills from the leadership failure experienced in challenger disasters. Risk analysis is an essential factor in projects. However, NASA failed to assess the risks of the defective O-ring. Therefore, organizations can learn the importance of evaluating the risk likely to affect the project’s performance from the challenger disaster.
Since the challenger disaster, NASA has made various changes to ensure that a similar incident never occurs again. The scientist made numerous changes to the shuttle to ensure the shuttle is reliable and safe for air travel recommended by the Rogers Commission. NASA has also acquired an open culture where personnel of different ranks is allowed to ask a question, listen to ideas, and answer questions without discrimination (Howell, 2022). If the NASA management had listened to the issue raised by Thiokol engineers, they would have considered rescheduling the launch. NASA has also enhanced science and space education by creating 40 schools worldwide (Howell, 2022). The challenger disaster is a lesson to many, including the politicians, employees, and leaders.
The space shuttle challenger disaster destroyed people’s perception of space travel. The disaster was broadcasted worldwide, and therefore many people witnessed the tragedy. Decades have passed since the disaster, but the memory is still fresh. The loss of a loved one is not something people forget quickly. The seven lives lost in the space shuttle disaster were traumatizing. Even though the leading causes of the disaster are the O-ring’s resistance to cold temperature, the usage of rubber sealing in many industries has not been given much attention. In addition, miscommunication and failure in bureaucracy led to the shuttle Challenger’s tragedy. Besides, the fear of not being able to broadcast the teaching by McAuliffe on a school day if the launch did not happen on Tuesday and political pressure also led to the tragedy. And therefore, the challenger disaster was the responsibility of NASA and Thiokol management. The disaster triggered a wave of changes for the future of NASA, along with new management rules and the standardization of safety before a launch. After the Challenger disaster, NASA reduced the number of astronauts travelling to space to enhance their safety and started a legacy of building schools that concentrate on science and space in future such disasters avoided. The challenger disaster is significant in many organizations today as it enlightens leaders to take concepts and ideas from juniors with lots of seriousness as they might be facts. Leaders have also learned the need to incorporate an open culture and improve communication among employees of different specializations and hierarchies. The concept of risk management is also evident in the challenger disaster. For example, if NASA conducted a risk analysis to determine if the launch was worth being carried out on that cold morning, they could have decided the risk impact on whether it was worth launching or waiting for the temperature to rise to the recommended value. Technology has become the central part of human beings as it enhances and complements lives. And therefore, every technological design should be handled with care and designed with skilled personnel because their breakdown affects human lives, like in the case of a challenger disaster. NASA could have avoided this disaster. Effective communication strategies, open culture, quality technological designs, and risk management are essential for the effective continuity of projects.
Teitel, A. (2022). What Caused the Challenger Disaster? HISTORY. Retrieved 8 April 2022, from https://www.history.com/news/how-the-challenger-disaster-changed-nasa.
Howell, E. (2022). Challenger: Shuttle Disaster That Changed NASA. Space.com. Retrieved 8 April 2022, from https://www.space.com/18084-space-shuttle-challenger.html.
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Harris, H. (2019). Challenger Disaster: One Phone Call Could Have Saved the Crew. theportalist.com. Retrieved 11 April 2022, from https://theportalist.com/nasa-the-challenger-disaster-and-how-one-phone-call-could-have-saved-the-crew.
Berkes, H. (2016). 30 Years After Explosion, Challenger Engineer Still Blames Himself. Npr.org. Retrieved 11 April 2022, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/28/464744781/30-years-after-disaster-challenger-engineer-still-blames-himself.
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