Challenger Case Study

Topics: Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Space Shuttle Challenger, Space Shuttle Pages: 13 (5023 words) Published: January 28, 2006
This paper examines the different areas of Organizational Behavior that went wrong with the challenger case. It will touch down on how the type organizational culture at NASA contributed to the disaster, how the organizational structures and communication patterns contributed to flawed decision making and the role that leadership also played in the disaster. Also, the paper will cover how ethics apply to the case, and the many different ethical levels that can be discussed regarding the disaster and finally, it will discuss who was responsible for the "seriously flawed" decision making process and how it played its role in the disaster. By the end of this paper you will see how each of these factors played an integral part in the organizational disaster of the Challenger.

NASA's Organizational Culture

"Success breeds confidence and fantasy" (Starbucks-Milliken, 1988).

Prior to the Challenger disaster, NASA completed twenty-four successful launches. "When an organization succeeds, its managers usually attribute this success to themselves, or at least to their organization, rather than to luck. The organization's members grow more confident, of their own abilities, of their managers' skill, and of their organization's existing programs and procedures" (Starbucks-Milliken, 1988). That is the organizational culture which gradually grew at NASA after the first launch in 1958. With repeated successful launches, NASA grew an image of themselves as an organization that does not commit any errors or mistakes. NASA did not perceive themselves as a typical organization. "It had a magical aura. NASA had not only experienced repeated successes, it had achieved the impossible. It had landed men on the moon and returned them safely to earth. Time and again, it had successfully completed missions with hardware that supposedly had very little chance of operating adequately" (Boffey, 1986a). With these perceptions and beliefs, it comes as no surprise that the NASA management would not accept the statements made by engineers that the Challenger launch would not become their twenty-fifth successful take-off. For instance, "during a teleconference on 27 January, 1986, Thiokol's engineers said that NASA should not launch the shuttle if the ambient temperature was below 53 degrees because no previous launch had occurred with an ambient temperature below 53 degrees. Lawrence Mulloy protested: '. . . there are currently no Launch Commit Criteria for joint temperature. What you are proposing to do is to generate a new Launch Commit Criteria on the eve of launch, after we have successfully flown with the existing Launch Commit Criteria 24 previous times' (Commission, 1986, I-96). Mulloy spoke as if he had come to trust the Launch Commit Criteria that had always produced successes. (Starbuck-Milliken, 1988) This shows that NASA had no intention to delay the launch as it believed there was no chance of failure.

Therefore, as the Presidential Commission remarked "NASA's attitude historically has reflected the position that ‘We can do anything'". Similarly, a former NASA budget analyst, Richard C. Cook, observed that "NASA's ‘whole culture' calls for ‘a can-do attitude' that NASA can do whatever it tries to do, can solve any problem that comes up" (Boffey, 1986b). The NASA organization would not accept the fact that it could fail, and this ‘We can do anything' culture contributed greatly to the Challenger disaster. If the management at NASA would have realized that the shuttle was not ready to launch on January 28, 1986, the lives of seven astronauts including ‘America's teacher in space' would not have been lost. This disaster shows the effects of repeated successes, gradual acclimatization and the differing responsibilities between engineers and managers. NASA's past successes blinded their decision maker's beliefs about probabilities of future successes (Starbuck – Milliken, 1988). The management at NASA was so occupied with staying...

References: • Starbuck, W. – Milliken, F. (1988). Challenger: Fine-tuning the odds until something breaks. Journal of Management Studies, 25: 319-340. Retrieved March 28, 2005 from
• COMMISSION (1986). Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office
• Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster
• Maier, M. (1992) "A major malfunction" The Story behind the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. Binghamton: State University of New York at Binghamton [Video tape]
• Boisjoly, R
• Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, vol. 3-4 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986).
• Bell, Trudy and Karl Esch, "The Space Shuttle: A Case of Subjective Engineering," IEEE Spectrum, vol. 26, no. 6 (June 1989), pp. 42-46.
• Fink, Donald, "NASA After Challenger," Aviation Week and Space Technology, vol. 124 (June 9, 1986), p. 11.
• Adler, Jeff, "After the Challenger: How NASA Struggled to Put Itself Back Together," Newsweek, vol. 112, no. 15 (Oct. 10, 1988), p. 28- 36.
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