Posted: March 18th, 2023
space Shuttle Challenger disaster took place on January 28, 1986 as the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up into pieces just 73 seconds after its launch. The destruction blew the shuttle into flames and dust causing the death of all seven crew members. Even though the crash was a sad moment in the history of NASA and United States Space programs, it is still being studied merely to figure out what went wrong. Aboard the space shuttle was Christa McAuliffe, who was supposed to telecast live and teach in classrooms globally. Her loss and the loss of the other crew members left NASA dismantled. (Forest, 1996 p1).
Most of the blame is placed on flawed decision making and the fact that mismanagement led to the decision of launching the shuttle.. As soon as the shuttle launched, the hardware solid rocket booster (SRB) “O” ring failed and thus led to the explosion. Surely, there were other factors involved but the idea of human mismanagement leading to loss of human lives put NASA back several years. There was a sense of mistrust by the public and surely of the amateur astronauts who were making their way in to NASA. A thorough look at the decision making process and its implementation will be discussed later.
When one thinks of what exactly led to the crash, there comes the prospect of both environmental and human causes. It can be stated that the Space Shuttle Challenger was made without a solid need or an application this led to reduced support both financially and from the government as well. (Forest, 1996 p2) Many different uses of the shuttle were put forward such as increasing national security, or enhancing the scientific knowledge of the American Space Program. Since Challenger comprised of members from different nationalities and races, the shuttle would then go on to strengthen the ties between different countries.
The production and engineering of the shuttle were merely done to satisfy the political, economical and organizational factors working against the making of the shuttle. Thus, where on one hand missions were designed with solid goals, this shuttle was made very rebelliously. This is an understood phenomenon. Even when a child takes up a project or a task that others are forcing him to not take up, there is an immense amount of pressure on him to do make that certain project succeed. In doing so, his first priority is to prove the others wrong rather than successfully completing his project. A major factor adding onto the uncertainty was the immense amount of political stress placed on the Shuttle management team. The increased pressure became an obstacle for the people to perform effectively and thus later go on to affect their decision making skills as well. The Reagan administration stated that the shuttle was functional even before it had been developed completely. Oddly enough, Reagan administration and the political environment became pro-NASA and supportive of the shuttle after the disaster happened. (Byrnes, 1994 p 130)
Decision making is not an easy process as it consists of loads of logic and step-by-step thinking. When companies have their problems, a certain decision can make or break their progress. The simplest plan of making a decision is to first figure out an issue, see what caused it, now look up possible resolutions and then go whichever one is the most feasible. (Mintzberg and Westley, 2001 p 89). Decisions that have a long frame are easier to make because one is not placed in a haphazard situation. Even the aforementioned plan was for the most simple and non-time limited situations, the people behind the decision of the launch should have put it into the working. Many a times one is placed in a situation where the decision making has to be completed all of a sudden as opposed to a transition into the final step. An example was given by Mintzberg and Westley of a company who is wishing to make a new plant. The real decision of making a new plant has been suspended mainly due to new problems and new events. Then all of a sudden, it’s a ‘do or die’ situation, where a fast decision has to be taken whether to make a plant or not.
The simplicity of the decision making process had been highlighted earlier. However, when it comes to crucial decisions one really has trust his or her instincts. That can be explained how business CEOs have that business instinct maybe from experience or from their position on what deal to sign and what not to sign. The human mind takes in and analyzes information that one is not even aware of at all times. (Hayashi, 2001 p6) Larsen has stated that throughout his years as a chief decision maker, trusting your instincts is a very important thing. Whenever one goes on to ignore his or her instincts, bad decisions take place. (Hayashi, 2001 p 7) This is explanatory by the uncertainty caused by environmental factors prior to the launch of the shuttle. Even before the shuttle was launched, the internal environment within NASA wasn’t a positive one. The employees and staff were reluctant mainly due to the shuttle being declared complete even though it wasn’t. Thus a major step is decision making, trusting your instincts, was overlooked.
There has long been a debate on whether one should trust their gut or not. It has been stated that feelings and emotions are not significant in affecting our judgment but they may actually be necessary. (Hayashi, 2001 p 7) Many a times CEOs or chief decision makers will make a decision against their gut. Leaders are evaluated only on the basis on being able to make the decision at the correct moment. (Butler, Bezant-Niblett, & Caine, 2011 p 241) Internally, they know that decision might not give a positive outcome. Subsequently, they work hardly to ensure that the decision gives positive results and nothing goes wrong. (Hayashi, 2001 p 10) NASA possibly had the gut instinct that they shouldn’t have had the space shuttle challenger in the first place, but then kept working and progressing towards something they didn’t have a good feeling about in the beginning.
There was present a group support system between NASA and Thiokol, which are the makers of the SRB “O” rings. The interactions between the two groups were crucial since the decision they both took would influence whether Challenger would launch or not. A night before the launch of the shuttle, Thiokol was worried and aware of the fact that rings wouldn’t work well in the cold temperature. (Mahler and Casamayou, 2009 p. 40). NASA asked for a final advice on whether Challenger was to launch or not and they were told not to by Thiokol. To this response, the managers at NASA responded with anger and stress such that Thiokol representatives came in under pressure. Another recommendation was made shortly, which stated that the shuttle were good to go.
When negotiations take place between two learned people, rationality is the main basis on which they are defined as right or wrong. Nonetheless, those who are negotiating the decisions often go to inappropriate ideas of what is right or wrong. The sole basis of rationality or in the case of the NASA explosion would be safety considerations are over looked. (Bazerman and Tsay, 2001 p 4) Many a times in decision making where one party tries to dominate over the other, the dominant party overlooks the important details being given to them. Regardless of what the person on the opposite side is saying, their input is constantly devalued to such an extent that they eventually give in. (Bazerman and Tsay, 2001 p5) This sort of decision making can be explained on the bias of behavior in which one party will always try to make their wish or their argument win in the debate regardless of what the outcome will be. The argument between NASA and Thiokol, the makers responsible for the production of the O. rings is a good example of this. In this, NASA had hired the Thiokol group of engineers. Thus, NASA was kept the dominant party and Thiokol’s assertions or arguments had to be in favor NASA.
This is highlighted in the fact that when two parties negotiate, each of them think that they are biased.(Bazerman and Tsay, 2001 p5) In the case of NASA and Thiokol, NASA appeared like the biased one because it wanted to launch. Thiokol, on the other hand, changed their decision possibly under the dominance of NASA. Along with being biased in negotiations, many times the dominant party also thinks of themselves as being the right one as well. Completely ignoring the realistic outcomes, the party focuses on the positive and optimistic results. (Bazerman and Tsay, 2001 p8) during the hasten decision making on the eve of the launch; NASA probably didn’t think that this would lead to a crash. A good thing to always do prior to making a decision is to look at all possible options. (Butler, Bezant-Niblett, & Caine, 2011 p 245) In this case, the launch did not have to be on the assigned date. There was an option of delaying it until the matters had settled. When they were impatient and wanting to launch, all they pictured was the government, military, scientific society and the overall public in general applauding their actions of sending yet another shuttle into the space. Studies have shown that positive emotions and moods lead to the negotiator being cooperative and ending at a result which would over all benefit both the parties. On the other hand, negative moods such as anger or stress just like NASA was leads to uncooperative decision making and thus flawed results in the end.
A plan of action or a successful decision is acted out when it is sync with all levels of the company. (Bower and Gilbert, 2007 p74) The senior leaders should therefore hire managers who will act seriously because the future of the company lies in their hands. (Bower and Gilbert, 2007p76) In true theory, no one can ever know when disaster or a problem will come knocking at your doorstep. In instances like these, it is better to prevent disaster and in doing so critical steps must be followed. The RPM process of preventing a crisis includes three important steps: Recognition, Prioritization, and mobilization. (Watkins and Bazerman, 2003 p 6) All these steps if taken by the leader will surely prevent any disaster from happening. If persons in charge remain insensitive and ill informed about the risks at hand, then crisis is often expected. The problem of the O. ring was informed to NASA but they themselves didn’t give so much importance to it. Thus if we look at the above game plan for preventing crisis, lapses in both prioritization and recognition come out. Both Thiokol and NASA recognized the problem of the “O” ring. Thiokol had more knowledge of grave the decision to launch is whereas NASA didn’t. NASA didn’t recognize it and possibility could be because it wanted to launch on time. Thus there was mismatch between prioritizing a launch on schedule or the safety of the members. Lastly, even after they did know that there was a problem no steps were taken to stop the launch. Another important thing in decision making is being aware of the critical information. Thus, it is important to bring details into conscious awareness when they are required. (Bazerman and Chugh, 2006 p 90) This can be exemplified by this scenario. The officials did not know or realize the severity of the “O” ring issue when they should have.
The interactions that occurred between NASA and Thiokol have already been mentioned. Subsequent to that, voting took place that would have decided whether the Shuttle Challenger should launch or not. Unfortunately, only the senior members of the team had the right to vote and they did so in a very biased manner. (Forest, 1996 p 5). Many of the other members of the GDSS group were affected by the “O” ring situation. Even though most of them were against the launch, they didn’t take part in the voting.
An important thing to note in good organizational behavior is that responsibility is split up among all different levels and units. (Bower and Gilbert, 2007 p75) Thus, when decision making was taken up by only senior members, it resulted in a faulty organizational structure. They failed to take advice from learned engineers and weren’t able to recognize or even talk about the issues at hand. (Mahler and Casamayou, 2009 p41) Along with the technical and decision making issues, the fact that many of the NASA members were afraid to speak against the selected norm emerged as a big problem. This showed a weakened management structure and a poor ability to amalgamate details important to the launch. According to the Rogers Commission that was carried out after the disaster, two huge problems were identified in the Challenger disaster. Even after the both the NASA managers and the Thiokol engineers knew how serious the issue of the rings was, they did not take it seriously. Thus they failed to recognize the problem which showed lack of organizational learning. Also, none of them deemed it necessary to transfer this critical information to a level higher than theirs.
Another management error that was seen prior the launch was all the centers linked to mission were highly independent and not running under the authority of a higher level. This meant that they could take decisions and even implement them in their own way. This meaning that there was a distinct center for the orbiter, known as the Johnson Space Center. The one responsible for the external tanks, solid rocket boosters and shuttle main engines was the Marshal Space Flight Center and lastly the launch operations were managed by the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. When talking about the high level members of NASA, the issue of O-rings seems even more mysterious. The fact that there was a problem with the seals and O-rings came out forward years before the launch of the Challenger. Both NASA and Thiokol did not recognize the problem as something critical and did not even go toward finding a solution.
The director of the center was told about the various things in the center and it was his role to cooperate and coordinate with the other centers. The centers became competitive with one another rather than focusing on the mission in overall. This led to autonomous decision making and thinking about the center rather than the safety of the launch. For instance, the Marshal center did not tell about all the unsolved issues and thus not all the levels or centers knew about it. The employees in NASA were not tolerant of criticism and had a fear of reprisal. Another flaw in the organizational behavior was that there was a lot of pressure of the upper levels, which was visible from the fact that only chief decision makers got to vote. The fact that Thiokol reversed its decision just after some form of pressure by NASA showed excessive hierarchy as well. Thus overall, there was competition among the centers, fear of speaking out and a culture of not recognizing the security of a problem that showed lapses in the organizational behavior at NASA.
Even though the Space Shuttle Challenger was a loss to both NASA and humanity, it did change the organization in many ways. There came the advent of more flexible landing sites and much more diverse program. Oddly enough, the public interest in America’s space program also grew following the shuttle incident. (Couch, 2011). Surely enough, many more alterations and improvement were required in NASA following the disaster. Surely enough, there should be a good amount of balance between intuition and analysis. (Heskett, 2010) There should also be a great deal of independence in all the people involved in decision making. Along with being emotional in the right amount, great decision making occurs when one does not follow the crowd. (Heskett, 2010)
Organizational learning stands crucial when an organization wishes to correct their flaws, fix them and stand before the government and the public. It is a form of learning where the problems at hand are declared openly. The reason behind the problems is looked into and all the members take an active part in figuring out the solution. All the new methods looked up then go in sync with what the company wants, the professional desire at an individual level and what the external world also expects.(Mahler and Casamayou,2009 p. xii) This form of knowledge continuously helps an organization make better decision and improve them. It isn’t just another form of knowledge that a person has. It is basically a set of rules and procedures passed on through over time so there is a set plan for decision making and managing crisis situations.
Creativity is another thing needed to enhance the decision making and the organizational set up in NASA. Creativity is the amalgamation of expertise, creative thinking skills and motivation. (Amabile, 1998 p 2). When we put this scenario in front of us, it is clear that the members of the NASA group lacked creative thinking skills. This part of the concept of creativity makes up and determines how a person will approach a problem and how easily they will come up with a solution. Motivation is yet another thing that should be major in the employees at NASA. It is true that all of us study work and get focused on their careers to make money and get rich. However, it isn’t the outward benefit of a job such as money that gives in the real motivation. One should be compelled to do good him or her. (Amabile, 1998 p 3) When creativity is suggested to make a company successful, it should be handled with care. Many say that creativity with little time ends in good results. However, that is not always true. Thus, all decisions regardless of how creative they are should be thought through thoroughly. (Amabile, Hadley and Kramer, 2002 p 52)
For an organization to improve and grow, learning should be a major motive of the employees. The employees should be aware of the possibility space they have and thus be able to grow and function in that. (Butler and Allen, 2008 p 423)
All the members in GDDS felt as if they should live up to the standards and go with the herd. Yet in a successful company, people are taught to think out of the box and look at things differently. Thus in a nutshell, decision making can be enhanced by removing bias from intuition. As mentioned earlier, it is smart to trust your gut. In doing so, any thoughts that one is sure about or biased towards, should be removed. (Milkman, Chugh and Bazerman, 2008 p 2) Decision makers shouldn’t be over confident in themselves and consider the perspectives of others as well. (Milkman, Chugh and Bazerman, 2008 p 5)
Amabile, T. et al. (2002) Creativity Under the Gun. Harvard Business Review, August.
Amabile, T. (1998) How to kill Creativity. Harvard Business Review 76, 5 (September-October ), p.76-87.
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Bower, J. And Gilbert, C. (2007) How Managers’ Everyday Decisions Create or Destroy Your Company’s Strategy. . Harvard Business Review, February.
Butler, M. And Allen, P. (2008) Understanding Policy Implementation Processes As self-organizing systems. . Public Management Review, 10 (3), p.421-440.
Butler, M. et al. (2011) Decision-Making. In: Butler et al. eds. (2011) Introduction to Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. London: CIPD, p.237-267.
BYRNES, M.E. (1994). Politics and space: image making by NASA. Westport, Conn, Praeger.
Couch, A. (2011) Remembering Space Shuttle Challenger: Five Ways It Changed Spaceflight. The Christian Science Monitor, January 28.
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Hayashi, A. (2001) When to trust your Gut . Harvard Business Review, 79 (2), p.59-66.
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MAHLER, J., and CASAMAYOU, M.H. (2009). Organizational learning at NASA: the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Washington, D.C., Georgetown University Press.
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