SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER DISASTER ANALYSIS

It was the day in the history of America wherein the people had a great expectation of a mission that would take a civilian for the first time into space. After twenty four successful launches by NASA, the Challenger space shuttle was a test of their experience as an organisation. On January 28th 1986, the shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff, claiming the lives of all crew members onboard .The explosion could not be blamed just because of the technical faults but also raised numerous other issues such as organisational and ethical behaviour. It also questioned the leadership skills exhibited by the teams involved during the operation.

This report discusses the organisational factors that contributed to the accident and reflects on the aftermath of the disaster explaining about space missions and the organisations associated with it. It also reflects on the role of management in order to manage a complex engineering operation.

NASA OPERATION – REASONING ITS FAILURE

There were many organizational factors which contributed to the accident. To start with, NASA was always a narcissistic kind of organization, which believed in the number one spot. Since it landed the first man on the moon, prior to Russia, its technological ethos took backseat. It was more of an organization, which concentrated on the public display image rather than the true technology. The U.S. government declared to stop supporting the space shuttle programmes and asked NASA to raise their own funds for any further space programme. Also, for any complex engineering project, to be a success, the feedback and recommendations of the engineers and technical staff is considered, as the most mandatory and important requirement. In Challenger’s case, it was the most neglected aspect and thus leads to a disaster.

There were some strong forces of ‘reason’ and ’emotions’ which influenced the decision to proceed with the launch. The highly visible public display of America’s success as a multicultural society was also one of the reason they included many minorities in the group. NASA just wanted to go ahead with the launch as there was one lady school teacher, Christa McAuliffe in the team, which made this space launch a ‘special centre of attraction’ for the citizens of the U.S. The US president was due with his assembly speech, which also somewhat forced NASA to go ahead with the launch. There was huge media pressure as the launch had been cancelled several times before. There was also the lack of leadership in the organization as there was really no one with the courage to make the right decisions, as it is one of the foremost requirements of a charismatic leadership.

The relationship between Morton Thiokol and NASA is one of the strong reasons for the failure of mission. Both organizations managers were over complacent as they looked for evidence to support mission success rather than evidence indicating possible mission failure. The Thiokol management wanted to make sure it received future contracts from NASA. This is clearly evident from the communication, which took place between the two organisations during the teleconferencing. Basically, both the parties were looking and were guided by their own selfish interests.

SHUTTLE DISASTER – WHO IS TO BE BLAMED?

One single entity cannot be held accountable for the challenger disaster. Responsibility falls on the managers at NASA and Thiokol. These are the people who made the decision to launch challenger and where the ones with the authority and power. They did not listen to or take any real notice of the engineers at Thiokol who are the experts in the area and have the knowledge base regarding the rocket boosters. There was a lack of communication and a sense of desperation from the managers to make sure the shuttle launched as they did not want any further delay.

The role that the culture at NASA played in this disaster was very important and indeed can be directly attributed to the disaster. Within NASA there had developed a climate where communication was very closed. The culture did not encourage a free flowing exchange of information between departments and people of different levels; there was a concerted effort to discourage creative thinking. This mind set was also transfeered to Thiokol which had a detrimental effect. The mission was the first of its kind to have a non-astronaut aboard, this was done so that the space program would be more widely acknowledged by the public it would capture people’s imaginations again with the possibility that a regular person could go up into space. Although there was a non-astronaut on board the shuttle and a mix of ethnic backgrounds and genders this can in no way have had any bearing on the disaster as none of these people where responsible for giving the mission the go ahead that was purely down to management and once the shuttle was launched those on board would not have been able to do anything differently.

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The challenger disaster was certainly avoidable, the warning signs were there but the people in charge did not heed them. The engineers knew there was a problem with the O rings and many attempts were made to communicate this but management did not want to listen to the engineers as it was something they did not want to hear as they clearly put financial gains ahead of the safety of the mission and its crew. NASA also could have stopped the launch but because they had already delayed the launch twice management were under pressure to not delay any further. The pressure to meet its targets led NASA to not follow the set down rules it had in place to stop something like this happening. All the pressures put on both NASA and Thiokol led to them taking risks which did not pay off. If the pressure to launch in conjunction with communication breakdowns had not occurred or had been managed better this disaster would not have happened.

FACTORS INFLUENCING DISASTER

Communication

Communication was considered to be an issue since the engineers were not able to convince the management team at NASA to stop the launch of the space shuttle. It was very evident from the initial time that the management at Marshal Space centre contained already known problems and they were trying to resolve them internally instead of communicating them further.

During the initial stages of the challenger project, the management of NASA had come up with certain guidelines and rules called the BURDEN OF PROOF wherein the technical team had to come up with exact proof to explain the consequences if there was a failure from their side. Robert Lund, an engineer and manager who played an important role during the challenger launch explained

‘we had to prove to them that we weren’t ready, and so we got ourselves into the thought process that we are trying to find some way to prove to them it wouldn’t work and we were unable to do that . We couldn’t prove absolutely that the motor could not work’ (US Commission 1986)

In any organisation communication decisions should not be set as rules and need to be flexible.

Leadership

Taking leadership into account, according to Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy explained the structure of an organisation. NASA’s organisation exhibited a rigid organisational structure wherein all the rules and regulations must be strictly adhered to and everyone should perform the role which they were assigned to. In this rigid type of organisation, the leadership exhibited by the NASA was a narcissistic approach.

“Narcissistic leadership occurs when leaders’ actions are principally motivated by their own egomaniacal needs and beliefs, superseding the needs and interests of the constituents and institutions they lead” (Seth A.R. & Todd L.P., 2006)

The leader becomes more concerned with public relations thereby concerning a lot about the organisation’s image and in the process it forgets about the other issues that were equally strong.

Behaviour of people

Behaviour of people within both organisations with respect to the risk management was unplanned and NASA management had to make a decision at the last moment even when everyone agreed that a catastrophic possibility existed and it was known that responsibilities of the people were clearly defined. Much of the evidence pertaining to the disaster was dismissed. Behaviour of the entire team could be interpreted as group think. The concept of group think was formulated by Janis, according to his theory; the member of the teams worked as cohesive groups and had utmost confidence in their project. During group think, the decision makers get an illusion that they are invulnerable and it makes people take extraordinary risks at crucial moments. (Janis, 1986)

There was an illusion of unanimity among the group members. Regarding the judgement made, the individuals in the Thiokol team remained silent and none of them had openly agreed to the launch. The silence from Thiokol was also worsened since it was a teleconference meeting wherein the body language was not noticed even if they had said no. Hence silence meant an agreement which explains the fact that the team were unable to voice their views.

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The influence of the media

The influence of the media played in major role in decisions that were made by NASA. NASA was under tremendous pressure to achieve flight rates and was so pervasive that it was undoubtedly affecting the attitude towards safety. Scheduling pressures were playing a major role in making NASA biased to launch the shuttle and overseeing the risks which were attached to it, it was mainly due to the media’s 24/7 coverage on NASA which was putting them under pressure to launch the shuttle on time because they did not want further negative coverage which could harm their public image.

SPACE SHUTTLE – AFTERMATH OF THE DISASTER

All space exploration has a mission with some specific technical objectives. All missions are time bound, it takes years to plan and implement them. Highly motivated people are needed in the workforce. Astronauts are chosen for the specific missions and are trained for the specialised roles. The Roger’s commission provided nine recommendations to NASA after the challenger disaster to improve the safety of its shuttles. NASA not only considered these recommendations but also redesigned their space shuttles with new technical modifications including solid rocket boosters which were the primary cause of the disaster.

The role of engineering in complex projects could be analysed by studying the ‘Burns and Stalker’ theory about mechanistic and organic structures. They studied two different organizations- textile and electronics (Gabriel, 2007). The textile company was having more of a hierarchical structure as discussed by Marx Weber, as they were involved in the routine and bureaucratic tasks whereas the electronic company was more concentrated on the engineering work outs and thus were having more of a horizontal structure which demands more of verbal communications and less paper work. The concentration is more on the Innovation and inter-departmental communications. Above all, the employees have more discretion and liberty to suggest changes and chance to come out with productive innovations (Gabriel, 2007). NASA, being an organization, dealing complex engineering projects, should have provided their engineers with much discretion, rather than applying the unsuitable bureaucratic approach. While handling any complex engineering projects, it is thus advisable, to provide more ‘autonomy of power’ to its ground level staffs.

Power and politics in the organizations could be understood by studying the two well known ‘dysfunctions of bureaucracy’ and they are as follows-

Rigidity- It means that bureaucracy is slow to take advantage of opportunities and avoid threats. They are averse to innovation and experimentation. They generally avoid, which is new. This aspect of bureaucracy is not good for the managers who work in the changing environment. NASA’s failure as an organization, by not accepting the new engineering recommendations from its engineers and taking the matter lightly, resulted to the disaster.

Departmentalization- As per Weber’s theory, in bureaucracy, there is a strong hierarchical structure, which gets followed. So, the communication is from top to bottom level and never goes across horizontal level and this leads to setting up of different sub goals by different departments. These sub goals are not in good faith of organization as a whole and also leads to clashes and rivalry among departments.

MANAGING COMPLEX OPERATIONS

It is always very challenging to manage a complex engineering operation in any organisation. Generally complex organisation creates lot of problem and issues in management, so that management should consider the importance of culture, communication and leadership to manage this type of operation. According to our view following are the factors which should be considered while managing a complex engineering operation.

Communication framework:

Communication plays another key role in managing complex engineering solutions. A framework called as Leadership communication framework is taken into consideration wherein it starts with core communication skills represented in the centre of framework. It eventually expands itself from managerial communication skills which begin with emotional intelligence and cultural literacy. It finally leads to the concept of corporate communication skills where it becomes more complex and the organisation tends to become responsible to all internal and external stakeholders. The leaders who involve themselves within this type of communication model become the company’s face and have numerous responsibilities. Therefore in order to effectively get the advantages of this model an improvement plan has to be initiated with self-assessment of the process.

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SOURCE: Deborah J Barret, 2006

Culture:

Culture forms the function, as the linking mechanism by which network of understanding develops among the employees [Trice, 1988]. Culture works as the software of the mind and use of metaphor in the organisation. As especially strong culture became very useful to manage the project because people in strong culture know which things are right to do. In complex engineering situation feedback is often ambiguous and interpretation is the main key. In any organisation culture play a main role in how ambiguity is discussed and resolved in decision making (schien, 1992). Mainly in complex engineering time becomes a very important decision factor so that highly time urgent culture is very important in organisation. Management should consider the importance of culture in any operation.

Leadership styles:

Leadership style adopted by the management is very crucial in managing complex engineering operation.

As Kurt Lewin suggested, there are three major styles of leaderships

Authoritarian or autocratic

Participative or democratic

Delegative or Free Reign

In the case of any complex engineering operations, Participative leadership should be the first choice among the management wherein the leaders include one or more of their employees in the decision making process. By doing so, the leaders eventually gain the respect of their employees thus leading to a mutual benefit among them (Robert N, L & Christopher F, A, .2010).

Leadership is activity of mobilizing people to understand adaptive challenges which cannot be resolved by expert knowledge and daily management. To motivate the people who are working under you is very important in leadership. Motivation plays vital role to boost the confidence of the employee to do challenging task and also gave energy to perform their task better. As complex problems contain multiple system which includes technical analysis, to handle this type of project requires capacity of individual to skilful intervene in complex system. So that adopting proper Leadership approach is very important in organisation to handle any project.

CONCLUSION

Hence we conclude that there was strong need for leadership in NASA that would have been capable of organisational change. Its culture has always reflected self interested decisions.

 NASA would have to flatten its organisational hierarchy; it should be going for rather than having a bureaucratic organisation. There should be a mechanism in place where engineers should be able to bypass the bureaucracy and hierarchy, especially in the pre launch process. There words and ideas should also be respected and given some credence by the upper management.

 

NASA would have collaborate rather than contracting , it’s shuttle development and maintenance programs are outsourced to contractors , but it necessary for NASA to form a production and delivery oriented relationships with their subsystem contractors for a better future   . There should be a collaborative model of interaction.

 

NASA is still suffering from technical incompetence’s and narcissistic management, it has to make an overhaul change in its organisation for its best interests.  It is essential for NASA to be able to use its resources as efficiently as possible to effectively develop, explore and promote space.

References:

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Janis,I.L.,1986.Group think,(2nd edition). Boston: Houghton. Mifflin Publication

Seth A.R. & Todd L.P.,2006. Narcissistic leadership. The Leadership Quarterly,Volume 17, Issue 6,[Online], Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com [Accessed 18 Jan 2010]

Bella, D.A., 1987. Organizational Systems and the Burden of Proof. Thomson Publishing

Challenger Disaster – A NASA Tragedy.[Online]. available at http://space.about.com/cs/challenger/a/challenger.htm [accessed 23 Jan 2010]

Deborah, B.,2006.Leadership Communication. NewYork:Tata Mc Graw Hill Publication

Deborah,B.,2006.Strong communication skills a must for today’s leaders.[online]Available at: http://www.emeraldinsight.com [accessed 18 jan 2010]

Robert.N,L & Christopher F.A.,2010.Leadership Theory,Application & Skill Development.4th edition.

Strategic Leadership and Decision Making.[Online] available at http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/ndu/strat-ldr-dm/pt4ch16.html [accessed 15 jan 2010]

William H.S, & Moshe F.,2005.Organization at the limit lessons from the Columbia Disaster, Blackwell Publishing

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