Challenger Disaster

11 November 2016

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster has been well investigated and analysed as a typical management case by numerous researchers. Although the disaster is the direct result of a technical issue, the hardware failure of a solid rocket booster (SRB) O-ring caused by abnormally low temperatures, there is an unambiguous relationship between the disaster and numerous organizational factors such as communication (Gouran et al. 1986), leadership decision-making (Fisher, 1993 and Heimann, 1993) and individual behaviour in a stressful environment (Boisjoly et al. , 1989, Romzek and Dubnick, 1987). Arguably, all parties involved contributed to these issues, possibly outweighing the technology aspect. This paper will address fundamental questions relating to the organizational causes of the disaster. What organizational factors contributed to the accident? The organizational factors contributing to the disaster are centred on the following three issues.

The first issue is the serious communication breakdown was between NASA and Morton Thiokol. According to historical records, Boisjoly (2006), the former Morton Thiokol engineer, had “ordered the Marshall Space Flight Centre (MSFC) to present a preliminary report prior to formal FRR meetings” after noticing the design flaw of these primary seals on the two field joints as early as 1985. Boisjoly subsequently brought the problem to the board’s attention.

Challenger Disaster Essay Example

Nevertheless, until 1986 the issue had not yet been resolved although NASA had classified it as ‘an emergency’ matter. Not only Boisjoly, but also other engineers such as Thompson (1985) reported the O-ring seal problem to their managers, and highlight that it had become ‘acute’. Attempts to make the issue clear were ultimately disregarded by the management groups. The second issue is the excessively vertical rather than horizontal and collaborative decision making process of senior managers.

As investigated after the accident (CST, 1986), the disaster could have been avoided if NASA and Morton-Thiokol managers had paid attention to the recommendations of the technical staff, and taken scientific decisive action to solve the increasingly serious problem. NASA managers made the final launching decision without the support of Morton Thiokol managers, not heeding the repeated warnings of engineers regarding the abnormal low temperature at the launch location (Rogers Commission, 1986). The third issue is the decision-making behaviour of people under intense pressure.

According to the view of Romzek and Dubnick (1987), NASA made the hasty final launching decision under the pressure of the White House, because delaying the launch could cause potential loss of economic and political support for the space program as well as damage the overall reputation of the program. The same accountability pressures also had an impact on Morton Thiokol, which undertook transferring pressure of NASA with fear of contract loss. These pressures influenced the final decision ‘that set an overly ambitious launch schedule’.

How did the forces of ‘reason’ and ‘emotion’ influence the decision to proceed with the launch? The Challenger disaster is an example of how, in an organisational setting, pressure and fear can lead to irrational behaviour on the part of the leaders and decision-makers involved. Irrationality connotes a lack of reason, which can be brought about via emotionally charged situations. The Thiokol team were put under intense pressure by NASA to carry out the launch and ultimately succumbed to fears of recrimination rather than follow their instincts and better judgment.

They held the knowledge that multiple lives were at stake, thus illustrating the power of the forces of reason and emotion in organisational behaviour. George proposes that “emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage moods and emotions in the self and others, contributes to effective leadership in organisations” (2000). It can be argued that Thiokol and NASA were operating under a deficiency of emotional intelligence. This is apparent in their systematic ignoring of clear and persistent calls to redesign the O-ring. The Rogers Commission report outlines Marshall engineers Leon Ray and John Q.

Miller’s attempts to elicit a redesign by issuing memos including the words “resulting in catastrophic failure” (1986). By ignoring such blatant warnings, Thiokol and NASA, the acting leaders in this endeavour, eschewed the responsibility to even merely address this emotional outcry. Thereby, they failed to understand and deal with the serious emotions of concern from Marshall and failed to manage their fears of failure by not admitting that problems exist and being committed to a solution. No reason or logical explanation for their actions can be found.

This behaviour and the decision to proceed with the launch can be seen as an illustration of what Tourish and Robson call “threat-rigidity theory” (2006). This theory ties into the idea that speaking up or voicing concerns threatens “the vital interests of an entity” and the desire to always be seen in a “positive light” (Tourish and Robson, 2006). Ultimately, as the Rogers Commission report supports, since Thiokol and NASA lacked emotional intelligence in the organisational context they could not manage their emotions of fear, pride and complacency. How did the relations between NASA and Morton Thiokol affect the decision?

In NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, the organizational structure was a vertical (tall) differentiation structure consisting of four levels (George and Jones, 2006). Level I was a final authority to determine launch readiness (Gouran, et. al. , 1986) and NASA engineers and managers were operating together. However, one issue of this structure was that it was highly autonomous and the entire managerial system became more complex, bureaucratic and political accountable (Vijay, 1996). Morton Thiokol was a contractor producing the Solid Rocket Motor (SRM) for the NASA team.

When Thiokol’s engineering and managerial teams discovered the abnormally low temperature, which could cause a potential technical failure of O-ring, they provided a recommendation to NASA teams to postpone the time of the shuttle launch until noon or later on 28 January. However, NASA’s Level III managers strongly disagreed with Thiokol’s engineering analysis. They thought this was an ‘acceptable risk’ which was based on scientific method supported by sufficient testing and data. According to the Challenger case analysis by Vaughan (1996), the Challenger accident was due to the normalization of organizational deviance and misconduct.

The normalization of organizational deviance was the outcome of the changing socially culture of NASA’s workgroup and production. Indeed, in NASA’s organizational structure, it can be seen that the decision-making power is highly centralized. Centralization is described as “the concentration of authority and responsibility for decision-making power in the hands of managers at the top of an organization’s hierarchy” (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2010). It can affect an organizational culture. In the Challenger case, NASA’s workgroup culture seemed to be ‘deviant’ and ‘inappropriate’.

However, as they conformed the cultural beliefs, they still kept supporting the scheduled Challenger launch even though Thiokol explained that there existed a potential risk. As a result, it created a flawed decision-making process between NASA and Morton Thiokol. Is any one part, group or organization responsible for the disaster? Greene argues that there is a serious deficiency in communication and culture throughout the NASA and Morton Thiokol organizational structure and that both parties were responsible for the ultimate outcome (2013).

The engineers failed to catch the attention of managers regarding the danger of launching the spaceship. Although engineer had alerted management to problems with the O-ring, thus communication was insufficient in preventing the tragedy (DeGeorge, 1981). As often observed, when information is transferred from subordinates to middle or senior management, it is more than likely that the truth may be twisted in favour of senior management’s preferences. The management took safety for granted and rushed to launch the space shuttle days before President Reagan’s State of the Union speech.

Gouran (1986) has indicated that the decision to launch occurred under tremendous pressure. The chief engineer of NASA headquarters, Milton Silviera, should have taken the responsibility of safety, reliability, and quality assurance of the space shuttle. According to the Roger Commission report, the NASA x-range safety officer was not present at the meeting where the launch decision was made. Both the engineering and managerial teams knew of the technical defect, however, no one came forward to stop the launch.

The organizational culture in NASA seems to deliberately ignore unpleasant voice (Tufte, 1997). Due to the pressure to conform and the loss of leadership at every level of management, NASA went ahead with the plan. Finally, NASA was flooded with pride because they set a precedent of success previously, and did not want to compromise their reputation. Therefore there was no room to manoeuvre (Silver, 2012). How might NASA’s own culture have contributed to the disaster? As this case identifies, the primary cause of Challenger’s accident was based on the ailure of the O-rings during the launch of the spaceship. Nevertheless, the processes behind this technical aspect unleash a far more distinct area that should be seen through the concept of Organizational culture.

This notion is recognized by Stephen Johnson, an ‘ASK Magazine’ contributor; “Success and failures clearly have technical causes, but a system’s reliability strongly depends on human processes used to develop it, the decisions of the funders, managers, and engineers who collectively determined the level of risk” (Johnson, 2012). ASK Magazine’ is published by NASA, and the magazine points to what many argue to be the main reason for why Challenger‘s O-rings failed during take-off back in 1986. Organizational culture does have a significant impact on any organization’s performance, but not only in terms of positive and productive outcome. Edgar Schein, author of the article ‘What You Need to Know About Organizational Culture’ recognises in his text that “many have adopted “strong” cultures as a prescription of organizational success” (Schein, 2003).

For NASA in the context of the Challenger disaster, the ‘strong’ culture may be seen in a more negative light due to the autocratic leadership style exercised by NASA managers at the time, in conjunction with their supplier (Morton Thiokol). This is emphasised through the comments made by a Senior Vice President of the operations where it was communicated that “a management decision [was] necessary” (Boisjoly et al, 1989) in responding to objections about the launch from engineering personnel involved in the preparation for take-off.

This focus on managerial and performance related terms rather than technical and security factors was further emphasised by comments made by another manager who asked an engineer to “take off [your] engineering hat and put on [your] management hat” (ibid) in discussing whether Challenger was ready for launch. According to Boisjoly, “the process represented a radical shift from previous NASA policy. Until that moment, the burden of proof had always been on the engineers to prove beyond a doubt that it was safe to launch.

NASA, with their objections to the original Thiokol recommendation against the launch, and Mason, with his request for a “management decision”, shifted the burden of proof in the opposite direction” (ibid). Power and politics in organizations: the impact of authorities decisions-making, their responsibilities and authority NASA as a governmental organization has a vast organizational scheme that engages in a wide range of activities. LaPalombara ,et a(2001) stated that considerations of power and its exercise are ubiquitous in public/political-sector organizations.

There was a political pressure on NASA to show to the public that the shuttle Challenger’s program was not at the experimental stage anymore like Apollo was but is now completely operational, and reliable enough to attract commercial businesses. However, the decisions to reduce the federal finance of the program along with the pressure that NASA was facing in terms of unrealistic flight schedule due to commitments to government, have contributed to poor decision making from the launch managers. The pre-launch conferences (Groupthink, 1989) unveiled some flaws, which led to the Challenger disaster.

These flaws included an environment in which decision-making was under pressure. For Vaughan, these decisions have contributed to the development of a new organizational culture that allowed some degree of technical flaws. Many entities were present in the organization; several private firms have contracts to assist in the launch process of NASA’s STS launch missions. For Cohen and Axelrod (1984), this condition of multiple accountability, formal and informal, implies that political organizations are considerably less autonomous than private-sector organizations.

Another impact of power and politics in organizations is “the teacher in space” program. With this program, President Reagan was showing his support of education, but it put NASA under pressure to promote the image that shuttle flight is safe and should be perceived as normal airline travel. LaPalombara argues that Normative considerations are endemic to public/politicalsector organizations, because they are directly or indirectly involved in what Easton (1953) once called ‘the authoritative allocation of values’. What does it mean to manage a complex system? Perrow (1972) argues that complex systems should be avoided.

Yet, complex systems in organizations such as NASA and hospitals cannot be avoided (2003). As these institutions will remain in existence, the risk of errors and mistakes is heightened. Communication is a central theme in complex system management. There should be focus on communication from managers to non-managerial staff (Dennis Tourish and Paul Robson, 2006). Seeger and Ulmer (2003) stated the collapse of Enron was partially caused by a failure on the part of its senior managers to maintain adequate communication systems capable of transmitting information about organizational problems.

Managing change is also crucial: Managers of such organizations do not limit at redundancy, they also proceed to organizational and cultural changes. We have seen the changing of institutional expectations in NASA’s environment. Consequently, its structure began taking on an organizational ambience that supported compliance to administrative needs. That was a response to pressures. Organization components were supposed to work closely together but that was not the case among Marshall, Kennedy and Johnson space centres. These organizations acted independently with poor communication and extensive bureaucracy.

Conclusion Managing a complex system of organizations such as NASA and Thiokol requires employees in key positions to be able to identify and address problems properly, while simultaneously being involved in the decision-making process and security manners. As explored in this analysis, a range of factors from bureaucracy to emotional intelligence and group think all make up for factors that can contribute to a compromise in judgement. These issues are of tantamount importance because, as we have seen, in the case of the Challenger disaster consequences of ignoring these issues can be catastrophic.

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