Columbia Space Shuttle

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The Columbia Space Shuttle disintegrated during its return to earth on February 1, 2003. The crew of seven astronauts died that day. As a result, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) was created to investigate the cause of the tragic accident. The exact cause of the of the accident was that the a piece of the foam insulating material from the external tank broke free and struck the leading edge of the shuttle’s wing which damaged the heat shielding panels. The impact allowed super-heated gases to enter which led to the shuttle’s disintegration.

Aside from the technical failure, the CAIB pinpointed NASA’s culture and management structure as the culprit for the accident. From the start, NASA faced political pressure to be and stay number one in the space race against the Soviet Union. Although the Cold War ended and NASA’s funds were reduced, the political pressure continued. “…NASA officials decided to push ahead… with an approach of faster-better-cheaper…(handout)” Employees were asked to do more with less resources. In addition, the shuttle’s safety overview program was outsourced. As a consequence, communication problems arose. Furthermore, NASA rewrote the safety protocol to include falling debris as an acceptable risk even though engineers found it to be a concern. These engineers were “…shut off from voicing their opinion (handout).” The CAIB stated that NASA’s structure did not allow easy communication. The report on Organizational Culture Change at NASA concluded that “NASA’s history and culture contributed as much to the Columbia accident as any technical failure (Assessment and Plan for Organizational Change at NASA).”

Answers to Questions
The AIB stated that although there was no one management decision that caused the Columbia disaster, management was to blame. What were the management issues that caused this accident?

There were several management issues that caused the Columbia disaster. One of the key issues...
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