How a poor managerial decision blew up a space shuttle

Challenger Eplosion

“If we launch tomorrow we will kill those seven astronauts,” Roger Boisjoly.

It was the first time a civilian was included in a space flight and Americans watched with anticipation as the Challenger launched — only to see it explode 73 seconds later. If you were alive in 1986 when it happened, you probably remember two things: Where you were and that o-rings were to blame.

But what received limited news coverage was the teleconference call the night before the launch where, despite objections from engineering expert Roger Boisjoly who presented his team with images of damaged o-rings from previous flights, NASA was given the go ahead for the launch.

It has been described as one of the worst ‘the customer is always right’ decision-making examples in history.

But, to get a historical perspective on why the go-ahead was given you need to understand three factors at play: an expiring $710 billion contract, waning public interest in space travel — and a president hoping to capitalize on a teacher traveling into space.

The Looming Contract

Space flight was a very expensive venture which meant it was highly profitable for those in the business. One of those companies was Morton Thiokol International — part of the family of companies that supply table salt. They were no stranger to government-funded projects — Thiokol was a major supplier of liquid polymer sealants in WWII.

With regards to space travel they designed the solid rocket boosters used to lift the shuttle off the launch pad. Even though they did not submit the low bid, they were able to win the initial SRB contract, possibly due to political connections between the Utah-based NASA administrator and the Utah-based Morton Thiokol. That first contract was worth $710 billion and Morton Thiokol was still in the process of securing the second contract on the eve of the disaster.

Reviving Interest in Space Travel

NASA, on the other hand was dealing with a different type of problem: waning public support. The public’s enthusiam of the 60s and 70s for the program had been replaced by a ‘been there, done that’ feeling. To offset this and revive interest, NASA embarked on a massive public relations campaign with its Teacher in Space project. The program was announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 and proved quite popular with more than 11,000 teachers applying for a seat on the shuttle. In 1985 NASA chose Christa McAuliffe with Barbara Morgan as her backup.

Political Aspirations

Last, but not least, President Ronald Reagan wanted to include the event in his State of the Union address to be delivered on January 28. Once the tragedy occured, Reagain became the first and only president to delay a State of the Union address. Reagan declared January 28 a day of mourning and delivered his address on February 4.

The Phone Call

When Morton Thiokol management initially engaged in the January 27 teleconference with NASA, they stuck to their guns saying they could not recommend a launch below 53 degrees since that was what the data supported. This was met by opposition from NASA and at one point in the conversation, Larry Mulloy, the SRB Program Manager for NASA said,

“My God, Thiokol. When do you want us to launch? Next April? The eve of a launch is a hell of a time to be generating new Launch Commit Criteria.”

Thiokol found itself in a new position. It was accustomed to giving evidence supporting a decision to launch, but now it had to supply evidence why it should not launch — a much different task. This led to their downfall. Since they did not have data to conclusively prove a launch would be catastrophic, they would have to rely on an opinion. It became a case of management not valuing or trusting the opinion of the person closest to the problem. Engineering expert Boisjoly (and others) had been deeply immersed in the o-ring issue for months so they had intimate knowledge, but their knowledge was bypassed as managers above them sought to appease a dissatisfied customer.

Boisjoly, who on the night of the call vehemently opposed the launch, six months earlier, sent a memo to the vice president of engineering stating,

It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to dedicate a team to solve the [o-ring] problem…we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities.

His opinion was ignored.

They Get The Contract Anyway

In a final odd twist to the story, despite their role in the catastrophe, Morton Thiokol was awarded the new SRB contract, receiving less than a ‘slap on the wrist,’ in the opinion of one editorial.

What About The Teacher Who Trained As McAuliffe’s Back Up?
Barbara Morgan trained as the backup astronaut for Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion. Morgan went on to become the first teacher in space more than 20 years after her colleague’s death — and she did it with little fanfare.

In 2007, she was load master on an 11-day mission to the International Space Station on the space shuttle Endeavour. In a nod to McAuliffe, during the mission, she answered students questions via satellite. Learn more about Morgan in the PBS special Barbara Morgan: No Limits.

Resources

Quite a bit has been written about the Challenger explosion. The decision-making process has been written about in ethic, engineering and other publications. Several books have been written as well, here are a few:

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