The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster – Organisational Causes
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. 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...
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