An accident that occurred with the Challenger shuttle was tragic as it caused plenty of deaths that might be prevented in the case of appropriately ensured safety measures, timely shuttle examination, and attentive risk management. The mission of Challenger was to revive the interest of the press and public in the NASA space program. However, the idea failed – January 28, 1986, the main TV channels showed only the first seconds of the start and switched to standard broadcasting (Villa Bal, 2011). After a few minutes, they had to go on the air to report that the Challenger broke apart and no one survived. The principal cause of the disaster was the leakage of gas through the connection elements of the solid booster that occurred due to an unusual trail of exhaust. However, there was a set of reasons that led to the catastrophe.
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The problems with the integrity of joints have been known since the second flight of the Space Shuttle program. After the first case, engineers provided the following test: O-ring has been damaged intentionally stronger than before, and then it was subjected to the pressure that was three times more than the pressure in the working chamber. The O-ring kept the pressure. However, the test proved to be incorrect. The engineers understand the seriousness of the problem, but they lacked resources to investigate it in detail and eliminate (Villa Bal, 2011). Moreover, engineers stated that low temperature might worsen the problem with O-rings and raised the issue of the transfer of the start date. Despite the warning, Challenger was activated at extremely low temperatures. Furthermore, another reason for the disaster was a strong side wind that changed the direction of the shuttle making it move in a zigzag. The report shows that a jet flew nearby 30 minutes before the lift-off process. It seems that Challenger was affected by the side wind entering the same layer as the jet.
From the above observations, it becomes clear that the shuttle design requires the implementation of adequate measures to eliminate these disadvantages that lead to irreversible consequences. The design of the side accelerator needs to be changed. In particular, the elements increasing the stiffness of the solid booster parts are to be added. A rescue system suitable for the emergency escape of the whole shuttle should be introduced. NASA risk management is expected to follow proactiveness throughout all stages including observation, evaluation, and decision-making. Smith and Merritt (2002) state that “late discovery of potential problems precludes solutions that would have been available earlier” (p. 10). In the case of Challenger, the last 73 seconds were decisive and non-convertible. In terms of proactiveness, it is essential to conduct timely examinations of all the systems. Nevertheless, efficient risk management was not ensured at all stages of the program lacking continuous and systematic control.
According to one of the performance objectives in the context of Risk-Informed Decision Making (RIDM), the maintenance of astronauts’ health and safety are to be ensured by NASA risk management. It should be stressed that Challenger astronauts died because of the impact on water. For some unknown reason, the development of the Space Shuttle did not cover any system of salvation during the first two minutes of lift-off, namely, before the separation of solid boosters. At that, “the ability of a proposed decision alternative to Maintain Astronaut Health and Safety (performance objective) may be measured in terms of its ability to minimize Probability of Loss of Crew (PLOC) (performance measure)” (NASA risk management handbook, 2011, p. 11). This is associated with ethical dilemmas as the top management at NASA overestimated their interests in future development and activated the shuttle despite the Chief Engineer’s doubts concerning safety. Thus, appropriate decision-making was failed.
The analyzed accident provides several significant lessons:
- Inappropriateness in risk management could lead to extremely unpleasant losses during the system operation. Therefore, it is necessary to develop risk management attentive to all the details. In particular, the organizational aspects should be accurately controlled as the disaster was a result of several errors rather than the aftermath of single managerial wrongdoing.
- It is of paramount importance to pay attention to the stakeholders’ interests. If NASA risk management was focused on public, astronauts, and other interested parties’ interests, they would, probably, consider safety measures more thoroughly the lack of which led to the death of seven astronauts. The established maximize safety objective is “decomposed into minimizing loss of life, minimize serious injuries, and minimize minor injuries” (NASA risk management handbook, 2011, p. 36). Perhaps, there was a possibility to prevent it from using high-quality safety standards.
To conclude, the Challenger accident was caused by the confluence of several factors including organizational, environmental, and social ones. The case clearly shows the necessity for adequate risk management at NASA, especially for a comprehensive assessment of potential factors that can impact the shuttle lift-off. Challenger disaster demonstrated the need to improve safety standards, employees’ management, and shuttle design in the context of risk management to prevent potential accidents.
NASA risk management handbook. (2011). Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Smith, P. G., & Merritt, G. M. (2002). Proactive risk management. New York, NY: Productivity Press.
Villa Bal, E. (2011). Challenger – a case study in risk management. Web.