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Organization Behavior and Management: Space Shuttle Challenger Case Study

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Updated: Aug 19th, 2019

Space Shuttle Challenger Orbiter History

The Challenger was initially referred to as the STA-099. The shuttle was built to work as a test vehicle for the Space Shuttle program and was named after the HMS Challenger, which was a British Naval research vessel. The HMS Challenger sailed in the Atlantic Ocean as well as the Pacific Ocean during the 1870’s.

When the Challenger was built it underwent intensive vibration and thermal testing for a year. NASA awarded Rockwell, a Space Shuttle orbiter manufacturer, a contract in 1979 to build the Challenger by converting the STA-099. The Challenger arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in July 1982, and it became the second orbiter to be operation in the center.

The Challenger had been designed to be a historic craft and many were optimistic it would outlive the rest. The Space Shuttle took its maiden flight on April, 1982 for the STS-6 mission, which saw the first ever space walk in the space shuttle program. The EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) was done by Astronauts Donald Peterson and Story Musgrave.

This lasted about four hours and it was also during this mission the first deployment of a Tracking and Data Relay System constellation was done. After completing nine successful missions, on January 28, 1986 the Challenger was launched on the STS-51L and after a mere 73 seconds it exploded killing all the seven crewmembers (NASA, 2011).

This paper will look at the SHUTTLE 51-L MISSION, the organization that was involved in the Challenger project, the mechanical failure of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the organizational behavior and management shortcomings that contributed to the disaster and finally make organizational behavior and management changes that can be adopted to prevent a reoccurrence of the same disaster.


NASA Program

As the Challenger Space Shuttle progressed, there was an increase in the demands being placed on NASA and this resulted to an increased risk of disaster (Jarman & Kouzmin, 1990). The NASA team had a false sense of security having carried out 2Kramer, & James, 1987 missions, which had been successful.

Prior to the launch, there were many wrangles within NASA, and managers were working in a place with heavy overload and turbulence (Kramer & James, 1987). The management at NASA was characterized with a disease full of decay and destruction (Kramer & James, 1987 p.14).

There was lack of a formal DSS program at NASA initialized before the launch for the shuttle operations. There were strong indications that decisions were being made through satisficing and short cuts.

There were lots of compromise and operations were greatly affected. NASA was accused of having semi-uncontrolled decision making as they tried to satisfy the needs of the military, scientific community, industry and this led to the space shuttle being declared operational even before the development stage of the shuttle had been completed (Kramer, & James, 1987).

Decision making at NASA was done by default as there lacked DSS. The organizational structure at the program was political and manipulations were done to meet requirements of the political power.

When the Reagan Administration declared the Space Shuttle “operational”, many employees at NASA lacked motivation and left with the impression that decision making on the project should be made by the political administration (Jarman & Kouzmin, 1990).

Employees began being complacent and safety of the shuttle was highly compromised, as they tried to keep the shuttle on schedule and satisfy the clients. This presents the situation at NASA prior to making the decision to launch the space shuttle (Dunbar & Ryba, 2008).

SHUTTLE 51-L MISSION (Challenger Flight)

The 51-L mission was the 25th mission that NASA was going to undertake in its STS program. Shortly after launching the Challenger on 28, January 1986, the Challenger exploded mid air, destroying the vehicle and killing the entire seven crew members on the mission. This mission was aimed at deploying a second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite as well as the Spartan Halle’s Comet Observer.

The mission was also going to be the first time there were observers or passengers participating in a program called NASA Teacher in Space Program ((Dunbar & Ryba, 2008). S. Christa McAuliffe was one of the crew onboard and she was going to conduct live broadcasts that were going to be broadcasted to schools throughout the world (Dunbar & Ryba, 2008).

The destruction of the Challenger and the loss of life had profound impact on the society and the way it viewed the Space program and particularly NASA. As this paper will discuss, the tragic decision that was made to allow the launching of STS 51-L was as a result of long term contributing factors that were further increased by bad or weak organizational behavior and management strategies. The outcome of this tragedy caused loss of life, resources and made people to mistrust the space program.

Although the accident of the Challenger was blamed on the hardware failure of the SRB “O” ring (known as Solid Rocket Boost), the decision that was made by the management was also flawed. The decision was based on faulty organizational behavior and management and this was further aggravated by the mismanagement of initial information that suggested the launch be postponed (NASA, 2008).

Other factors that besides organizational behavior and management played a major role in contributing to the accident occurring. They included the demand NASA was getting from the political ruling class to deliver and launch on the scheduled day (NASA, 2008)

The process of proving to the American people and the political system that there was need for a reusable space shuttle had begun in the 1960s. The Challenger was one of the ways that this could be proven and thus a lot of pressure and expectation was put on the program. Unlike the previous missions such as the Apollo, the Space Shuttle was going to be used in space operations without having a defined goal (Jarman & Kouzmin, 1990 p. 3).

This presents the first contributing factor in the Challenger’s accident. Without a defined role for use, the Challenger was going to be used as a utility vehicle for space operations and thus there lacked a strong support for the project, both financially and politically. In order to gain favor and political support for the project, the Challenger was sold and presented to the political elites as a “quick payoff” (Jarman & Kouzmin, 1990 p. 8).

The project also gained support by predicting that it could be used by the military as a means that could be used to enhance the national security. To the industry, it was sold as a commercial opportunity, where companies could offer clients an opportunity to visit space. Many scientists in the program told the American public that the Challenger Shuttle was going to be an American Voyage that was going to have great scientific gain (Jarman & Kouzmin, 1990 p. 10).

To the world, the Challenger project was sold as a partnership that was going to include the ESA (European Space Agency) as well as a means that was going to improve the relations between nations and bring together people of different nationalities, sex and races by serving as crew members during missions (McConnell, 1988).

The process that was used to gain support in the economic, social and political arena for the space shuttle can be cited to be the second contributing factor that resulted to the accident (McConnell, 1988).

There was use of heterogeneous engineering, which means that the engineering and management decisions in the project were structured in ways that were going to be appealing to the political, economic, and organizational factors rather than being structured into a single entity mission that was aimed at achieving specific goals (Jarman & Kouzmin, 1990 p. 9).

When the Space Shuttle became operational, it was faced with many operational demands from many people. It had to live up to the promises that had been given by NASA. This placed a lot of pressure on the management team as they tried to coordinate the needs of the military, political elites and the scientific community.

The political pressure was to provide a space vehicle that was going to be reliable and could be reused. It was also supposed to be difficult to achieve this as it was going to hinder the ability of creating an effective system for integration and development. It was also going to be infeasible to create a management support system that could cater for the diverse requirements.

There was also a low moral within the NASA employee, which was created during the Reagan Administration when the shuttle was given the green light for operation even when the development stage had not been completed (Jarman & Kouzmin, 1990).

The American Congress expected that the Shuttle program was going to be financially self supportive after billions of dollars had been used to go to the moon (Jarman & Kouzmin, 1990, p. 15). With this lack of support from Congress, NASA adopted and operated as a commercial business instead of a government program. It can therefore be concluded that the environment of the program prior to launching had been one mucked wih conflict, short cuts and managerial stress (Jarman & Kouzmin, 1990, p.15).

Mechanical failure of the Challenger

Before the launching date, concerns had been raised about the integrity of carrying on with the launch when the temperatures were as lower than those expected for optimal performance. On a previous mission, 51-C, it had been noted that the booster joints were covered with soot and grease after launching on a cold weather.

Tests were carried out in the laboratory on the effect of low temperatures on the O-ring resilience. It was recommended that they be replaced by steel billets and this would have meant a redesign of the field joint. By the time of the accident, the steel billets were not ready.

Engineers at Alan McDonald made a presentation that detailed on the effects the cold weather was going to affect the booster performance. This was necessary because the temperatures of the launching date were expected to be lower than 350F. After the concerns were raised a meeting was convened and various heads and engineers attended.

The people in attendance included, engineers, top management of Marshal Space Flight Center, Kennedy Center, and Morton Thiokol. The meeting was called to discuss on the effect the cold weather was going to have on the mission especially the boosters’ performance.

Engineers gave a clear presentation that argued that the cold weather would have a major effect on the joint rotator and the O- ring seating. The test carried out had only gone to a low of 530 F and this presented a problem of the unknown (Rogers’s, 1989).

Thiokol provided NASA with information concerning the launch and thought that the low temperatures were going to affect the O-rings to a point they were going to be ineffective. The mission had been cancelled previously due to the cold weather and NASA was not ready for another cancellation (Kramer, & James, 1987 p.23).

Although information had been provided by a GDSS from another company showed that the O-rings were going to work under the predicted weather, engineers from Thiokol were skeptical about the data they had inputted into the GDSS. This meant that NASA was relying on a GDSS that had flawed information (Kramer & James, 1987).

At this juncture, NASA asked for a definitive confirmation or rejection of the planned launch from Thiokol. The representatives from Thiokol responded by recommending the launch be delayed until the temperatures were favorable. NASA continued to pressure Thiokol to change their minds and NASA level three managers is reported to have retorted to the representatives, “My God, Thiokol, When do you want me to launch, next April?” (Kramer, & James, 1987, p.7).

It was after this that Thiokol representatives asked to be given time to rethink their recommendations. An engineer with Thiokol was asked to stop reasoning as an engineer and start thinking as a manager, which suggests that the group was placing organizational needs in front of safety of the shuttle.

Thiokol representatives returned to the GDSS and recommended that the launch be done as planned. When NASA asked if there was any objection to this no one from the GDSS objected. During the launch the O-ring were severely affected by the cold weather and this mechanical failure caused the accident and the eventual loss of the crewmembers (Kramer, & James, 1987).

Critical analysis of the organizational behavior and management shortcomings that contributed to the disaster

The environment, organizational behavior and management which NASA and its developers operated in gave a large margin for human error. However, Thiokol and NASA had a chance to avert the accident during the GDSS meeting before the launch. The organizational behavior and management fallings can be attributed to the accident.

First, the team especially Thiokol had prior knowledge that the O-ring was going to be affected by the cold weather months before the launching. However, the primary goal of the project was to meet the launch date. NASA warned about the problem, but it downplayed it. This presents the first element of the mismanagement of information and bad organizational behavior that resulted into the accident.

Any suggestion and proposals of the launch-taking place were met with positive support from the management while all suggestions of delays were shot down without taking into consideration the risk involved in carrying out the launch (Turban, 1988).

Third, there was a strong feeling among the people involved in the project management to live up to the promises made. Despite the fact that Thiokol engineers were skeptical about the planned launching, their management went ahead and agreed with the other members of the GDSS to continue with the launch (Turban, 1988).

Fourth, there was bad organizational behavior and management on the part of Thiokol, because they agreed with the other teams although their engineers were telling them to stop the launch (Priwer, & Philips, 2009).

Fifth, all people involved in the top management of the project were afraid of how the political elites and the public would react if another cancellation was done. In the previous one year the launch had been postponed six times. Many in this group were starting to rationalize that if they had succeeded in the past they were as well going to succeed this time (United States Congress, 1986).

Finally, the group as stated before was working with flawed data and even when Thiokol engineers began to question the integrity of this information, nobody took action. People in the GDSS meeting who were proposing that the launch be delayed were unwelcome and therefore the management had its mind made on the launching date.

During the meeting, it was seen that NASA representatives were at times assertive and intimidate the other players to a point where they disregarded warnings given. The meeting is also faulted as a bad organizational behavior and management, because it was easy to downplay the personal opinions held by each member.

Instead of the speaker conversion, the meeting should have been held at a place where all members were present and maybe the outcomes would have been different. The GDSS failed the point where Thiokol asked to be given five minutes to conduct a private meeting. Before this point Thiokol had maintained that the launch should be cancelled, but after the private meeting it changed its mind.


The failure of the spaceship Challenger can be blamed on the organizational behavior. NASA has a variety of risk avoidance system. Their aim is to ensure that the missions are safe. NASA is one of the smallest federal agencies and operates under a strict budget of US$ 15 Billion (NASA, 2010).

This removes any flexibility during risky situations. This agency has been known to be dependant to their history for decision making. Since their establishment in 1958, their main aim was to beat the Soviet Union spaceflights. Though their budget keeps being cut, they still stick to their mission.

The cut costs made NASA realize that they could include the private business sector. This increased their pressure for success, which was also coming from the government. They had to research and develop the operations with limited time.

NASA Budget in billions of American Dollar.

NASA Budget in billions of American Dollar (NASA, 2010)

The normalization of deviance is another short coming on the management of the NASA. This is a term, which is used to explain the way sometimes some technical flaws are not scrutinized by the various safety bodies over time. This is because they are both expensive and time consuming. Due to the pressure to produce, it is seen as absurd to spend resources on problems, which are not a risk (Launius, 1992).

The postponing of the launch can be because of many reasons. Maybe the problem was the O-rings significance was not considered so much hence the problem with it was a minor one to them. The other reason would be, because the president was using the flight as a reference in his speech or maybe it was because of the much pressure, which was being exerted by both the private sector and the government.


Failures can happen no matter the safety systems applied. Though the cause of the failure was technical, the organizational failure caries a huge part in it. There are numerous things that NASA can do to avoid these types of organizational failures ever happening (Lewis, 1988).

One of them is the Hierarchical power. Some of the management’s personnel at the high posts have no interest in the hierarchy. Some of them would rather not make decisions that would jeopardize their work. The congress, a body of the NASA which offers regulatory oversight, has no desires to jeopardize the central district of NASA through their decisions. These are huge obstacles to the changes that should be made in the organizational behavior and management.

They should create a way in which the engineers can have the ability of by passing the hierarchy and bureaucracy before launching unsafe missions. If the engineers had had their way during the Challengers disaster, the O-rings would have been replaced or the launch postponed. Though these activities would be very costly to NASA, it would not be as expensive as losing the crew and the vehicle (United States Congress, 1986).

The bureaucratic procedures should be sometimes be exempted from getting some data. This is because hunch or intuitions which the engineers might have may take a long time to be researched on and analyzed (Hall, 2003).


Dunbar, B. & Ryba, J. (2008). . Web.

Hall, J.L. (2003). Space Policy. Columbia and Challenger: Organizational failure of NASA. Berkley: University of California at Berkley.

Jarman A. & Kouzmin, A. (1990). “Decision pathways from crisis. A contingency-theory simulation heuristic for the Challenger Shuttle disaster”, Contemporary Crises.

Kramer, C. & James A. (1987). The Space Shuttle Disaster: Ethical Issues in Organizational Decision Making. Michigan: Western Michigan University Press.

Launius, D. (1992). “Toward an Understanding of the Space Shuttle: A Historiographical Essay”. Air Power History, Winter.

Lewis, R.S. (1988). Challenger; the final voyage. New Yolk: Columbia University press.

McConnell, M. (1988). Challenger: A Major Malfunction. London: Routledge.

NASA (2010). . Web.

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Rogers’s commission. (1989). Report Of the President Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Washington DC. G.P.O

Turban, E. (1988). Decision Support and Expert Systems, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

United States Congress. (1986). Investigation of the Challenger Accident; Report of the Committee on Science and Technology, House of Representative, Ninety-Ninth Congress, Second Session. Washington: U.S. G.P.O.

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