1. The Communication Challenges at NASA on and before January 28 1986
Leading to the Destruction of the Space Shuttle: Challenger
Dr. Margaret Smith
University of Texas at El Paso
2. 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.
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
4. SWOT Analysis Communication Challenges at
Usually, development and implementation of projects at
It was the most important and competitive organization in
NASA took much more time and resources than originally
the space transportation business from among the Russian
and European ones.
Special projects and planned launches, before the
NASA 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 made
Information about the Halley’s Comet.
difficult communication between departments and
It was (and still is) composed by the most brilliant minds
form North America not only in the engineering and
There were many people involved form external
scientific side but also in the administrative and project
organizations and companies. NASA controls their actions
management areas too.
through written specifications and verification.
Better planning and more realistic deadlines were needed.
NASA needed a better system of communication where They were being threaded by the growth of European and
every participant in a process was aware of what the other Russian space agencies. All the improvements NASA had
was doing. done before were being reached by other agencies in the
Data transparency is made available for everyone in the world.
organization. Budget could be cut if more delays were presented and
A worst scenario and contingency plans with well thought metrics not met.
out implications. Political scenario in pressuring senior management and
Final revisions before launches and systems that clearly staff to sign off.
identify if something deviates from the plan.
5. 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.
6. 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
Lack of organizational communication
Lack of understanding between management and engineers.
Lack of use of good persuasion techniques by people who knew the risks.
7. LACK OF ORGANIZATIONAL COMMUNICATION
There were two companies involved in this situation, NASA and Morton-
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
8. LACK OF UNDERSTANDING BETWEEN MANAGEMENT
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
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.
9. 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.
10. 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
11. 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.
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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