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The Communication ChallengesAt NASA on and before January 28, 1986 Leading to the Destruction of the Space Shuttle: Challenger Prepared for Dr. Margaret Smith University of Texas at El Paso Prepared by Gabriel Ortiz Rebeca Sanchez Stephen Simon Group 6 ENGL3355 July 3, 2012
EXECUTIVE SUMMARYThis report analyzes the deficiencies in communication at NASA which led to the destruction ofthe Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986 and what could have been done differently toprevent the destruction of the shuttle and the deaths of the seven astronauts.Launch Delays Resulted in Undue Pressure on ManagementInclement weather continually created delays in the launch schedule for the fleet of shuttles andas a result, created frustration on the part of the Vice President who functioned as the keyspokesperson for the space program and NASA needed his goodwill. The launch delays resultedin unnecessary travel to and from the launch site for the Vice President. Further, there wasconsiderable political pressure to prove the shuttle fleet could fly dependably on a very ambitiousschedule to prove the cost effectiveness of the Space Transportation System and its potential forcommercialization. When a weather front stalled in Florida, creating a launch window, thelaunch for Challenger was once again a go. The weather forecast was calling for freezingtemperatures at the launch pad which was a red flag for the engineers at Morton-Thiokol, thecontractor responsible for the solid rocket boosters which failed and resulted in the loss of theshuttle and its occupants.Engineering Design Flaws DiscoveredNASA management wanted to have all the contractors associated with the shuttle program tosign off on the launch. All effected contractors were contacted to determine if there were anyproblems with launching in cold weather. The director of the Solid Rocket Motor Project atMorton-Thiokol, Alan McDonald, knew there were cold weather problems with the motors andconsulted with two other project engineers, Robert Ebeling and Roger Boisjoly. They had knownof cold weather issues with the boosters since 1977. They became absolutely aware of the coldweather flaw during the November 1981 launch; the second shuttle launch. At that time theyinitiated a redesign effort and in 1985 they became painfully aware that they were not supportedby their management in the redesign effort. Despite management resistance, the results of theNovember 1981 launch were undeniable and new steel billets were ordered. Unfortunately, thenew booster billets were not yet ready to be deployed by January 28, 1986.Management Pressured to Launch Despite “No Launch” RecommendationWell before the launch, Alan McDonald asked his engineers to prepare a presentation on theeffects of cold weather on booster performance. A teleconference was scheduled the eveningbefore the rescheduled launch. The attendees were engineers and management from KennedySpace Center, Marshall Flight Center in Alabama, and Morton-Thiokol in Utah. At theconclusion of the presentation, Thoikol’s Engineering Vice President concluded that the launch
should be delayed and made that recommendation. Marshall’s Solid Rocket Booster ProjectManager, Larry Mulloy, comments that the data is inconclusive and challenged the engineer’slogic at Thiokol. A heated debate ensued resulting in Mulloy bypassing Lund and requesting adecision by Joe Kilminster, a middle manager who had authority to override the engineers.Kilminster stood by the engineer’s recommendation to delay launch. A senior manager atMorton-Thiokol, Jerald Mason, states that a management decision is required. Theteleconference is suspended while Thiokol reviews its data and Kilminster consults hisengineers. During this period, Mason pressures Kilminster who then caves and when theteleconference resumes, changes his position on the launch. His recommendation to launch is notsigned off on by his engineers who reject the premise that the data is inconclusive. AlanMcDonald, who was present in Florida during the teleconference, is surprised by this reversaland appeals to NASA management not to launch. NASA managers decide to approve theboosters for launch. The Communication Challenges at NASA on and before January 28, 1986 Leading to the Destruction of the Space Shuttle: Challenger INTRODUCTIONNASA is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the space programwhich is a civilian space program and aerospace research. Its mission statement is has been topioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and around aeronautical research.NASA was established by the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29, 1958 and becameoperational October 1, 1958. NASA has led the US space exploration efforts including theApollo missions, Sky Lab and later the space shuttle. Currently it supports the InternationalSpace Station and presently overseas the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle. NASA is alsoresponsible for the Launch Services Program which provides oversight of launch operations andcountdown management for unmanned NASA launches. NASA shares its status with variousinternational organizations presently. NASA activities can be independent carrying scientificequipment or supportive testing equipment.There have been several space flight programs the first of which was the X-15 Rocket plane from1950 to 1968. Later it hosted Project Mercury from 1959-1963 and finally Project Gemini from1960 to 1966. This shuttle program began in 1972 and was planned as a frequently launch ableand reusable vehicle. Its major components were a Space Plane orbiter with external fuel tanksand 2 solid reusable rockets. During this history the shuttle fleet lost 2 orbiters in 14 astronauts in2 separate disasters: Challenger in 1986 in Columbia in 2003. Overall NASA space shuttleprogram had 135 missions in the program and on July 21, 2011 and spanned 30 years with over300 astronauts sent into space.The purpose of this report is to analyze the communications challenges at NASA which led tothe destruction of Challenger and the lives lost in the event. Several academic sources as well as
2NASA documents were used to compile the report and highlight the key communicationdeficiencies.This is an informational Case Analysis highlighting communications failures which lead to thedeath of astronauts and destruction of property due to managerial and financial pressures ofgovernment contractors who are the lowest bidders on our governmental projects.SWOT Analysis Communication Challenges at NASA on and before January 28, 1986Leading to the Destruction of the Space Shuttle: ChallengerNASA is a very important and influential agency because of the great contributions it has givento scientific and technological development. This is a very complex organization which isdivided into different groups which are focused on different areas. The scope of this analysis willfocus on the Challenger accident.STRENGTHS WEAKNESSES • It was the most important and competitive • Usually, development and implementation organization in the space transportation of projects at NASA took much more time business from among the Russian and and resources than originally thought. European ones. • Special projects and planned launches, • NASA had many projects and special before the Challenger accident, were programs which were going bring postponed many times. important information to the earth such as • NASA is a very large and complex information about Halley’s Comet. structure which made communication • It was (and still is) composed of the most difficult between departments and brilliant minds in North America not only management. in the engineering and scientific fields but • There were many people involved from also in the administrative and project external organizations and companies. management areas too. NASA controls their actions through written specifications and verification.OPPORTUNITIES THREATS • Better planning and more realistic deadlines were needed. • They were being threatened by the growth • NASA needed a better system of of European and Russian space agencies. communication where every participant in All the improvements NASA had done a process was aware of what the other was before were being reached by other doing. agencies in the world. • Data transparency is made available for • Budget could be cut if more delays were everyone in the organization. presented and metrics not met. • A worst scenario and contingency plan • Political scenario resulted in pressuring with well thought out implications. senior management and staff to sign off. • Final revision approval before launches and information systems that clearly identify if something deviates from the plan..
3THE NATURE OF NASA’S COMMUNICATION CHALLENGELack of communication during the development and launch planning for the shuttle Challengerwas the main reason of its explosion. An O-ring in the solid rocket booster was the technicalreason why the tragedy happens. Morton Thiokol was the company contracted for doing the solidrocket booster which contained the O-ring. The launched had been postponed two times beforeJanuary 1986. The Morton Thiokol Company had the opportunity of informing NASA that therewas a problem and assumption of responsibility for the previous delays.The first time, the delay was because bad weather was forecast for the launch day. The VicePresident was going to be present in Florida for the big event. He was the person in charge ofcommunicating to the White House all the important information about this launch. For thisreason NASA did not want to risk the Vice President having to needlessly travel. That is whythey regretted the delay as it became clear that the forecast of bad weather had been erroneous.Before this, in 1977 Thiokol found some problems on the design of the solid rocket booster.They informed NASA and started a redesign. The problem was attacked but in 1981 they foundother problem with the O-ring. It had eroded during a flight. They examined and did testing butthey did not inform NASA. In January 1985, they tested the solid rocket boost under very coldtemperatures. Since there still was a problem with the O-ring, Thiokol ordered different materialsbut the fixes had not arrived by the time of the explosion. They did not communicate this toNASA.The second time, there was a technical problem in the locking mechanism, but also very coldwinds arrived to Florida and this forced NASA to ask its suppliers about the impact ofspecifications on their provided components exposed to cold weather. This time Morton Thiokol,which was the contracted company producing the solid rocket booster, explained to NASA in1985 that there was a problem with this component and it needed to be redesigned. Doing theredesign would take a lot of time and since the launch had been postponed twice already, therewas not more time in the budget for NASA to require more redesigns.There were more reasons why another delay could not be possible. The Challenger needed to belaunched as soon as possible because the area of take off was going to be used to send othermission which was going to United States wanted to do it first and NASA had to follow thatmandate because its budget was at risk.Finally, the day of the launch arrived. The night before was very cold and temperaturescontinued dropping. Morton-Thiokol engineers were worried because they know the O-ringswere going to fail under those weather conditions. They planned a conference call meeting to letNASA know that they recommended postponing the mission because of a problem with the O-rings. Another delay was unacceptable to NASA management and here is where thecommunication problems first occur. The message was not effectively transmitted from Thiokol
4to NASA and there were dire consequences; seven astronauts, a school teacher with her classwatching, all died and a whole nation was in shock.THE CURRENT COMMUNICATION CHALLENGE AT NASA In retrospect, taking into account all the variables, we have to do analyze very carefullythe causes and consequences of the decisions made. In this tragedy we identified three maincommunication issues that lead the Challenger explosion. • Lack of organizational communication There were two companies involved in this situation, NASA and Morton-Thiokol. In theMorton-Thiokol Company we found several communication issues. Robert Ebeling and RogerBoisjoly were the engineers involved in the design and development of the solid rocket booster.Alan McDonald was their boss; he was the director of the project. In 1977 was the first time thiscompany detected a problem, they did the right thing. Robert and Roger informed themanagement at Morton-Thiokol and they did a redesign. So far so good, but the problem camewhen in 1981 and later in 1985, this company did not inform NASA about the problems theywere having with the O-rings. Here we see a lack of communication between organizations.These kinds of problems happen frequently when suppliers do not want to lose profit. Companieshide information that they consider very important but the truth is that any concealment ofinformation becomes all the more critical as evidenced; it can lead to fatal consequences. In anyhuman relation, communication is basic and in this case a commercial communication was veryimportant since the company failed and lives were lost. Also, in the company the lack ofcommunication occurred when the project director did not inform management immediately afterhe knew something was wrong. • Lack of understanding between management and engineers.The day before the launch, when the temperature was not dropping down, engineers fromMorton-Thiokol were very worried because they knew the O-rings failed when tested in coldwheatear. They arranged a teleconference with NASA management to tell them it was not safe tolaunch the Challenger under those conditions. Engineers needed to inform management thecauses and consequences of the launch under the cold weather. The information engineerspresented was deemed non-conclusive for the managers from both sides, NASA and Morton-Thiokol. In some companies people in management are not aware of how things worktechnically that is why engineers need to develop a creative and understandable way to presentinformation they are involved with. The main problem here is that those engineers did notexplain clearly the effects so management thought it was not a big deal and they by passed it.
5 • Lack of use of good persuasion techniques by people who knew the risks.A persuasive presentation can be an effective workplace communication tool. No more than onevery good written persuasive letter would be enough to convince management to delay thelaunch. The main problem here was that even when the engineers knew exactly what they weretalking about, their method of saying it was not the most appropriate. They were facing veryimportant people who had a big weight on their backs. But these type of people are the kind wealways have toface at work. We have to report our work to someone and if there is somethingwrong with anything we have to report it too. The engineers were not very persuasive and theconsequences went very bad.THE PROPOSED SOLUTION TO THE CHALLENGE There were various components at fault for the failure of the launch and mission of theshuttle Challenger. However, the most consequential factor was failure of proper communicationwithin the various levels in NASA management and the direct outside resources used for thismission. The question that remains is: What could have been done differently to prevent such ahistorical catastrophe? The solution is a higher level of accountability for the communicationpractices used at each level of operations leading to safer and successful shuttle launches forfuture generations. First of all, NASA should set rigorous standards for justifying actions and decisions madeat every department and appropriate level of operations participating in the mission. Forexample, it is crucial every employee undergo thorough training in order to be able to understandthe jargon used for effective communication with engineers. Attendance to any training shouldbe mandatory. Meetings should be conducted frequently. A representative from everydepartment and managerial level of operations must be present and work as a team. This givesthose participating the opportunity to bring their ideas, proposals, troubleshooting issuesregarding technical and mechanical aspects, as well as resolutions. This will not only assist ingetting to know and understand the different aspects of each other jobs, but also strengthen thecommunication between them. Secondly, before any decisions and actions were taken, there should have beenconclusive discussions regarding the matters of concern. Again, having representatives from allthose involved in the operation present. This could have enabled them to input their perspectiveand proposals. For accountability purposes, these resolutions should have been in writing andsigned for approval in accordance to the hierarchy within NASA and those outside partiesconnected with the assignment. Had these recommendations taken place, someone may haveuncovered the problem regarding the O-rings and other factors thus preventing the aggressivelaunch schedule of the shuttle Challenger on January 26, 1986.
6CONCLUSION The simplified mission statement for the space program is to explore space whilemaintaining standards of safety for the astronauts. There are no guarantees in life; NASA hashad its share of growing pains both intentional and unintentional but this disaster was avoidable.As it became clear, the participants made a judgment call which flew in the face of conventionalwisdom. It appeared that the reasoning of profit overtook the protective directive of discovery. There were several causes attributable to this disaster but none more glaring than themiscommunication between qualified engineers on the ground and management trying toappease the funding arm of the government; all this tempered by the profit-motivation of thelowest bidder for the O ring fabrication: Morton-Thiokol. Moreover, there was either deliberateor ignorant interpretation of the specifications for the O-rings. The testing administered was notverified as meeting specification at the source: NASA. This is a major oversight of a key piece ofequipment in which failure was known to be catastrophic. The families of those brave souls lost in 1986 on Challenger shall never forget nor shallthe children who sat in their classroom waiting to see and speak with their teacher in space onlyto witness the major malfunction as their beloved teacher died in the explosion. This avoidableaccident caused by miscommunication is a hard earned lesson and will undoubtedly save thelives of many astronauts in the future. There can be many causes of miscommunication andwhether deliberate or unintentional, its lasting effect remains. These communication lessons arehard won and hard taught. For posterity, let’s try to remember them lest they repeat themselves.
7Works CitedHall, J. (2003). Columbia and Challenger: organizational failure at NASA. Space Policy, 19(4)239-48.(1986). Pressure May Have Influenced Decision to Launch. Science, 231(4745), 1495-49.(2011). NASA history. Congressional Digest, 90(7), 196-224.(2012). NASA Fellowship in the History of Space Technology. Technology & Culture, 53(1),146-160.