The Communication Challenges at 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 ENGL3355 GROUP 6 GABRIEL ORTIZ REBECA SANCHEZ STEPHEN SIMON
This report analyzes the deficiencies in communication at NASA which led to the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986 and what could have been done differently to prevent the destruction of the shuttle and the deaths of the seven astronauts.
Introduction NASA is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the space program which is a civilian space program and aerospace research. Overall NASA space shuttle program had 135 missions in the program and on July 21, 2011 and spanned 30 years with over 300 astronauts sent into space. During this history the shuttle fleet lost 2 orbiters in 14 astronauts in 2 separate disasters: Challenger in 1986 in Columbia in 2003. This informational Case Analysis highlight communications failures which lead to the death of astronauts and destruction of property due to managerial and financial pressures of government contractors who are the lowest bidders on our governmental projects.
SWOT Analysis Communication Challenges at NASA STRENGHTS WEAKNESS Usually, development and implementation of projects atIt was the most important and competitive organization in NASA took much more time and resources than originallythe space transportation business from among the Russian thought.and European ones. Special projects and planned launches, before theNASA had many projects and special programs which were Challenger accidents, were postponed many times.going bring important information to the earth such as NASA is a very large and complex structure which madeInformation about the Halley’s Comet. difficult communication between departments andIt was (and still is) composed by the most brilliant minds management.form North America not only in the engineering and There were many people involved form externalscientific side but also in the administrative and project organizations and companies. NASA controls their actionsmanagement areas too. through written specifications and verification. OPPORTUNITIES THREATSBetter planning and more realistic deadlines were needed.NASA needed a better system of communication where They were being threaded by the growth of European andevery participant in a process was aware of what the other Russian space agencies. All the improvements NASA hadwas doing. done before were being reached by other agencies in theData transparency is made available for everyone in the world.organization. Budget could be cut if more delays were presented andA worst scenario and contingency plans with well thought metrics not met.out implications. Political scenario in pressuring senior management andFinal revisions before launches and systems that clearly staff to sign off.identify if something deviates from the plan.
THE NATURE OF NASA’S COMMUNICATION CHALLENGE Lack of communication during the development and launch planning for the shuttle Challenger was the main reason of its explosion. An O-ring in the solid rocket booster was the technical reason why the tragedy happens. Morton Thiokol was the company contracted for doing the solid rocket booster which contained the O-ring. The launched had been postponed two times before January 1986. The Morton Thiokol Company had the opportunity of informing NASA that there was a problem and assumption of responsibility for the previous delays but they did not.
THE CURRENT COMMUNICATION CHALLENGE AT NASA In retrospect, taking into account all the variables, we have to do analyze very carefully the causes and consequences of the decisions made. In this tragedy we identified three main communication issues that lead the Challenger explosion. Lack of organizational communication Lack of understanding between management and engineers. Lack of use of good persuasion techniques by people who knew the risks.
LACK OF ORGANIZATIONAL COMMUNICATION There were two companies involved in this situation, NASA and Morton- Thiokol. The problem came when in 1981 and later in 1985, Morton Thiokol did not inform NASA about the problems they were having with the O-rings. Here we see a lack of communication between organizations. In any human relation, communication is basic and in this case a commercial communication was very important since the company failed and lives were lost
LACK OF UNDERSTANDING BETWEEN MANAGEMENT AND ENGINEERS The day before the launch, when the temperature was not dropping down, engineers from Morton-Thiokol were very worried because they knew the O- rings failed when tested in cold wheatear. Engineers presented information about why was not safe for the Challenger to launch. The information presented was deemed non-conclusive for the managers from both sides, NASA and Morton-Thiokol. The main problem here is that those engineers did not explain clearly the effects so management thought it was not a big deal and they by passed it.
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 one very good written persuasive letter would be enough to convince management to delay the launch. The main problem here was that even when the engineers knew exactly what they were talking about, their method of saying it was not the most appropriate. They were facing very important people who had a big weight on their backs. But these type of people are the kind we always have to face at work. We have to report our work to someone and if there is something wrong with anything we have to report it too. The engineers were not very persuasive and the consequences went very bad.
THE PROPOSED SOLUTION TO THE CHALLENGE What could have been done differently to prevent such a historical catastrophe? The solution is a higher level of accountability for the communication practices used at each level of operations leading to safer and successful shuttle launches for future generations.
THE PROPOSED SOLUTION TO THE CHALLENGE First of all, NASA should set rigorous standards for justifying actions and decisions made at every department and appropriate level of operations participating in the mission. Meetings should be conducted frequently. A representative from every department and managerial level of operations must be present and work as a team. Secondly, before any decisions and actions were taken, there should have been conclusive discussions regarding the matters of concern. Having representatives from all those involved in the operation present. This could have enabled them to input their perspective and proposals. For accountability purposes, these resolutions should have been in writing and signed for approval in accordance to the hierarchy within NASA and those outside parties connected with the assignment.
CONCLUSION The families of those brave souls lost in 1986 on Challenger shall never forget nor shall the children who sat in their classroom waiting to see and speak with their teacher in space only to witness the major malfunction as their beloved teacher died in the explosion. This avoidable accident caused by miscommunication is a hard earned lesson and will undoubtedly save the lives of many astronauts in the future. There can be many causes of miscommunication and whether deliberate or unintentional, its lasting effect remains. These communication lessons are hard won and hard taught. For posterity, let’s try to remember them lest they repeat themselves.
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