The other day, in one of my classes, we presented an analysis of NASA mismanagement during the Challenger disaster of 1986. We further updated the case to present-day standards in order to discuss changes occuring after Challenger and the new problems following the Columbia tragedy in 2003.
What would have normally been a lecture/analysis of product innovation for every other group (Gore, Kevlar, Silicone Breast Implants, etc), turned into a strategy lecture/analysis for our group. NASA has not fully commercialized anything they do, aside from a brief stinct in commercializing satellite placement into orbit. That program has since phased out because of the enormous cost advantage of send a satellite on an Atlas-5 rocket over an STS, the Space Shuttle, in the amounts of billions of dollars.
The topic of the case (basically) was this: “Why did NASA, and Morton Thiokol (the supplier of the Solid Rocket Boosters), make the decisions they made to support the Challenger launch?”
Good question considering they knew the following:
- The O-ring showed significant damages in launches below 53F, and the launched planned for January 28 would be a very cold day – less than 30F
- If the O-ring did not properly work, evidenced during launches below 53F showed, hot gases would leak from the solid rocket boosters, likely causing an extremely dangerous situation
- Morton Thiokol engineers warned both NASA Level-III administrators and Morton Thiokol executives about the possibility of failure within 24 hours of the launch
Consider the chances of a failure during the launch, endangering the lives of the crew of the Shuttle, why would NASA proceed with the launch? Well, there were several reasons.
On January 28, 1986, NASA planned to launch Christa McAuliffe into space as the first person to partake in the Civilians-in-Space program introduced during Reagan’s reelection campaign. Reagan handpicked McAuliffe, insisting the first civilian in space would be a school teacher. Pressures from the White House came in daily doses. The Office of the President constantly called NASA adminstrators to ensure an on-time launch for two reasons. The first reason was to ensure that the launch happened during the school week so that McAuliffe could teach a lesson from space. The second reason was to promote the lesson and the program during the upcoming State of the Union Address. If the launch postponed by too many days, it would be irrelevant and untimely for the lessons and the Address. NASA did not want to fail the White House.
The media was another launch factor. As of late, media criticism surrounded every NASA launch. NASA could do no right, and for no reason at all. If a shuttle lifted off a day late, the media complained about NASA being unable to stick to a schedule. The media never understood the reasons behind a launch or the purposes of each mission. This is partly NASA’s fault. NASA never made a very good effort to launch any sort of public relations campaign to the media and general public. No one knew much about the program and its purposes. Even today this remains a prevalent problem within NASA.
NASA also faced severe budget constraints. They faced deteriorated internal lines of communication. There was no launch commit criteria. There was no real communication chain. Morton Thiokol stopped listening to their engineers in order to save face and attempt to save a $1 million plus contract to provide additional SRBs to NASA. A plethora of internal and external reasons point to why they scheduled the launch, but the underlying reasons were these: mismanagement, poor communication, and an obsession with saving face.
Luckily, times changed since then at NASA (even considering the Columbia disaster in 2003), but there are still issues they need to address. First, NASA needs a better budget. The cost of the shuttle program has dramatically increased since its inception, but NASA’s budget has not. In fact, in most cases, it has remained stagnant or dropped. They must have a great deal of creativity in NASA in order to still maintain a huge operation such as launching the shuttles while working with an almost non-existent budget. Second, NASA needs to up their public relations campaign with the media and American public. It could aid in America’s understanding of the necessity of the shuttle program – perhaps even fueling the next program’s interest (hopefully getting the program the attention it deserves). Explain that in just two short years Americans will once again need to rely on Russia, who has not been the most kind frenemy to the US anymore. Explain the purpose and advantages of space exploration, working around classified details, just so people see the benefits of the program. When you come down to it, people barely even know about programs. They can watch live feeds of launches, but that is about the extent of their knowledge.
I could go on about how I think NASA could be improved or return to the failures in the Challenger tragedy, but I will not. I think it is important to note one thing, and that is with every launch, there is an extremely high chance of tragedy or failure (however you want to see it). The shuttle launch is a controlled explosion with a chance of failure every 100 times (and that ratio is probably closer to every 60 times now). That astronauts risks their lives with every launch in the name of science is an admirable feat, one that should never be taken lightly. There is a vast, expanding universe beyond our atmosphere that deserves to be uncovered before the last evidence of our existence blows out. In short, NASA deserves to be rewarded for its risks, and the program deserves more attention than it receives from Congress to the American people.