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Space shuttle challenger disaster case study project management

Shortly after launch, the Shuttle exploded destroying the vehicle and all crew members. The cause and contributing factors that lead to the Challenger tragedy are explored in detail. Examples are included that show how contributing factors such as multiple priorities and demands influenced NASA from operating in a responsible and ethical manner.

  • The Shuttle program was grounded for almost three years, until a number of technical and management changes were implemented for safe operation of shuttle;
  • Challenger's unique mission and the death of Christa McAuliffe opened the door for discussion and research on how managers use DSS to make decisions that will affect public trust;
  • Despite the two tragedies that marked its history, the Space Shuttle program will always be remembered for the marvelous contribution it gave to the advancement of the US space program;
  • The Shuttle program was grounded for almost three years, until a number of technical and management changes were implemented for safe operation of shuttle.

Finally, the inability of each GDSS member to vote anonymously on the decision to launch is discussed as a critical factor that, had it been allowed, probably would have prevented the Challenger tragedy.

Paramount to this mission was crew member S.

McAuliffe would have conducted live educational broadcasts from the Shuttle and transmitted them to classrooms throughout the world. The loss of life and the unique position that symbolized Christa McAuliffe as the first civilian working as a teacher in space had a profound impact on society and its attitude toward NASA and the U. As this article will explore, the tragic decision to launch STS 51-L was based on long term contributing factors and the use of a flawed group decision support system that was further aggravated by its related mismanagement.

The outcome of this action created costs to society in terms of life, resources and public mistrust. NASA subsequently experienced years of setback for its related scientific research and operations. The resolution to launch was based upon faulty group decision support information and further aggravated by the related mismanagement of that information.

However, as in most transportation accidents, there are usually other contributing factors that help to create an environment leading to mistakes and failures. Therefore, a brief review of the contributing factors leading to the Challenger destruction is in order.

Environmental Factors - Demands on the Space Shuttle The process of "selling" the American public and its political system the need for a reusable space transportation system began in the late 1960's. Conceptually, the Space Shuttle was introduced during the crest of the successful Apollo mission. Unlike the Apollo mission, the Space Shuttle was approved as a method for operating in space, without a firm definition of what its operational goals would be [2] pg.

Here is the first contributing factor. The Shuttle was developed as a utility without a firm application. Therefore, support for such a project, both politically and economically, was not very strong. To gain political support it was sold as a project with a "quick payoff" cf. Additional support was gained by offering the Shuttle program to the military as a means to increase national security and to industry as a tool to open new commercial opportunity.

Scientists argued to the American people that the Shuttle would be an "American Voyage" [2] pg. Globally, the Shuttle was sold as a partnership with the European Space Agency ESA and as a means to improve national and social relations by combining peoples of different nationalities, races and sexes who would serve as crew members. The process used to develop economic, political and social support for the shuttle introduced the second contributing factor called heterogeneous engineering.

A failure in decision support system and human factors management

That is, the Shuttle engineering and management decisions were made to meet the needs of organizational, political, and economic factors as opposed to a single entity mission profile with specific goals [2] pg. Once functional, the Shuttle became exposed to operational demands from a multitude of users.

  1. NASA responded with pressure on Thiokol to change their decision. Instead of requesting an investigation, NASA Management ignored the problem and chose instead to increase the tolerance.
  2. Despite the two tragedies that marked its history, the Space Shuttle program will always be remembered for the marvelous contribution it gave to the advancement of the US space program. Examples are included that show how contributing factors such as multiple priorities and demands influenced NASA from operating in a responsible and ethical manner.
  3. The declaration of "operational" status was the critical turning point for NASA and its management of Shuttle operations. NASA staff opposed the delay.
  4. Scientists argued to the American people that the Shuttle would be an "American Voyage" [2] pg. COM makes no warranties, express or implied, about the accuracy of the conclusions.

Coordinating the needs of political, commercial, military, international and scientific communities placed immense pressures on the Shuttle management team. First, political pressure to provide a reliable, reusable space vehicle with rapid turn around time and deployment seriously hindered the ability for effective systems integration and development. Secondly, it was not feasible to construct any complete management support systems MSS that could consider all of the factors associated with such a diverse group of environmental variables.

Third, additional uncertainty and low NASA employee moral was created when space shuttle challenger disaster case study project management Reagan Administration pushed for the Shuttle to be declared "operational" before the "developmental" stage had been completed [2].

After spending billions of dollars to go to the moon, Congress expected the Shuttle program to be financially self-supportive [2] pg. This forced NASA to operate as a pseudo commercial business.

Therefore, the environment within NASA preceding the Challenger launch was one of conflict, stress, and short cuts [2]. A false sense of security was felt by NASA officials, with twenty-four successful Shuttle missions to their credit.

Mangers operated in an environment of "overload and turbulence" [3]. In short, NASA was characterized as having a "disease " [3] pg. Evidence is strong that decisions were made primarily by "satisficing" and conscious "muddling through. In short, NASA was operating in a phase of semi-uncontrolled decision making while trying to serve the military, industry and international research organizations with a space vehicle that had been declared operational before completion of the developmental stage [4].

Its organizational boundary was highly political and open for manipulation by any entity that could exert political power. Upon declaring the Shuttle "operational," the Reagan Administration removed the motivation of NASA employees to manage and left them with the impression that decision making would be made by directive from political sources.

The declaration of "operational" status was the critical turning point for NASA and its management of Shuttle operations. Complacency began to grow among employees and safety considerations were traded for time spent on keeping the Shuttle on schedule and "the client of the day" satisfied. This was the environment just before the launch of STS 51-L. Focus in this discussion will be placed on Thiokol - the subcontractor directly responsible for the development of the SRB "O" rings.

Speaker phones with audio only were also available. Space shuttle challenger disaster case study project management engineers were very concerned that the abnormally cold temperatures would affect the "O" rings to nonperformance standards. The mission had already been canceled due to weather, and, as far as NASA was concerned, another cancellation due to weather was unthinkable [4] pg. Both parties were already aware that the seals on the SRB needed upgrading but did not feel that it was critical.

Though the information provided by the GDSS with an associated expert system showed that the "O" rings would perform under the predicted temperatures, Thiokol engineers questioned their own testing and data that were programmed into the GDSS. The forecast for Florida did not show temperatures reaching this baseline for several days. NASA responded with pressure on Thiokol to change their decision.

Lawrence Mulloy, responded to Thiokol's decision by asking, "My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April? During this period the Thiokol management requested the chief engineer to "take off his engineering hat and put on his management cap," suggesting that organizational goals be placed ahead of safety considerations [4].

Group Support System - Critical Analysis There is little doubt that the environment from which NASA and its affiliated developers operated provided an opportunity for significant human error.

Challenger: A Management Failure

The following factors are offered as potential explanations for what created the flawed GDSS and the associated mismanagement of its information: First, Thiokol was aware of the "O" ring problem at least several months before the Challenger launch.

However, the goal was to stay on schedule. NASA was made aware of the problem but it was "down-played" as a low risk situation. Here is the first element of flawed information that was input into the GDSS. If NASA had been aware of the significance of the "O" ring situation, they probably would have given more credence to the advice of the Thiokol engineers' recommendations. However, the data transmitted during the GDSS meeting from Thiokol did say that it would be safe to launch for the forecasted temperatures.

NASA was frustrated over the conflicting advice from the same source. Second, the decision to delay a Shuttle launch had developed into an "unwanted" decision by the members of the Shuttle team [5]. In other words, suggestions made by any group member that would ultimately support a scheduled launch were met with positive support by the group.

Any suggestion that would lead to a delay was rejected by the group. Third, all members of the GDSS felt that they should live up to the "norms" of the group. Although the Thiokol engineers were firm on their recommendation to scrub the launch, they soon changed their presentation of objections once threatened with the possibility of being expelled from the program as suggested by a NASA administrator who was "appalled" at a company that would make such a recommendation based on the data available [5].

  1. Examples are included that show how contributing factors such as multiple priorities and demands influenced NASA from operating in a responsible and ethical manner.
  2. The setting for such an important GDSS meeting was also ineffective.
  3. The process used to develop economic, political and social support for the shuttle introduced the second contributing factor called heterogeneous engineering. Additionally, open and free communication before and during the GDSS meeting was discouraged through such group dynamics as mind guarding, direct pressure and self-censorship [5].
  4. A Management Failure The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was probably the most significant event, in terms of its impact on the US space program, in the history of spaceflight.
  5. The phenomenon of abnormal O-Ring erosion had been observed in previous flights.

At this point they became insulated, conducted private conversations under high stress and were afraid of losing potential future revenue should they disagree with NASA. All these factors are considered prime to the formulation of "groupthink" [5]. Fifth, all parties were afraid of public and political response to another launch cancellation there had already been six cancellations that year. Each party began to rationalize that past success equaled future success [5]. Finally, the GDSS was seriously space shuttle challenger disaster case study project management.

As already mentioned, the data base contained erroneous information regarding the "O" rings. Ideas, suggestions and objections were solicited but not anonymously. Individuals who departed from the group norms were signaled out as unwelcome members. Conflict management was avoided by NASA's domination of the entire meeting. NASA, at times, became very assertive and intimidating. Considering NASA's attitude, no group member or individual was willing to be held accountable for any comment or decision [5].

The setting for such an important GDSS meeting was also ineffective. If the meeting could have been held at the same place for all members, the outcome might have been different. At the end of the meeting NASA, very reluctantly, suggested that they would still cancel the launch if Thiokol insisted. No response from Thiokol was made and the NASA officials could not see the expression of "self-censorship" that was being communicated on the face of each Thiokol engineer [5].

Perhaps the most significant flaw in the GDSS was when Thiokol requested a private five minute meeting with its own members. Up to this point Thiokol had stayed with its recommendation to cancel the launch. Once reconnected, Thiokol had changed its position and offered the go ahead to launch without any objection. It is the opinion of this author that regarding the GDSS and decision to launch the ability of each member to have voted anonymously was the key factor that would have maintained the integrity of the GDSS and the quality of the decision.

It has been shown that just after Thiokol's presentation to NASA, most of the GDSS group members were very concerned with the "O" ring situation and believed that the opinions expressed by Thiokol engineers were cause for serious consideration of launch cancellation [5].

The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

However, only selected senior officials space shuttle challenger disaster case study project management allowed to vote their "opinion", which they did verbally and at the request of NASA. From the research conducted on this paper, the author believes that had a universal anonymous vote been conducted of the total GDSS membership, a decision to cancel the launch would have been made. The factors which lead to the Challenger incident can be traced back to the inception of the shuttle program.

NASA and Thiokol failed to maintain a quality assurance program through MSS, as was initiated on the Apollo program, due to multiple source demands and political pressures. The GDSS used for the launch decision contained inaccurate data. And, the entire meeting was mismanaged. The decision to launch the Challenger Shuttle and its subsequent destruction had a major affect on society and the management of our space program.

Challenger's unique mission and the death of Christa McAuliffe opened the door for discussion and research on how managers use DSS to make decisions that will affect public trust. However, the question of how NASA and Thiokol managed ethical considerations is central to the decision to launch the Challenger Shuttle and, therefore, deserves a brief overview.

The first area of ethical concern is the area of information accuracy. The fact that both NASA's and Thiokol's managers had little regard to the concerns of Thiokol's engineers is very distressing.

All members of the group made a decision knowing that the decision was based on flawed information.