Learning Lessons from a Major Malfunction

The year 1986 was shaping up to be the most ambitious one yet for NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. The agency’s plans called for up to 15 missions, including the first flight from the West Coast launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Other important missions included the launch of two planetary spacecraft with very tight launch windows, an astronomy mission to study Halley’s Comet, and the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. The first mission of 1986, STS-61C, delayed from December 1985, flew between Jan. 12 and 18. The next flight, designated STS-51L, marked the 25th in the program and the 10th for space shuttle Challenger. During the six-day mission, the seven-member crew was to deploy a large communications satellite, deploy and retrieve an astronomy payload to study Halley’s Comet, and the first teacher in space would conduct lessons for schoolchildren from orbit.

“Roger, go at throttle up.” — Commander Dick ScobeeSTS-51-L.

Today I showed a The New York Times documentary from June 2014 titled “Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster: Major Malfunction” in my MGT 205, Organizational Behavior class at the American University in the Emirates. The documentary is about the Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia disasters; it explores how poor decision-making resulted in the death of the astronauts in both ill-fated flights. Notably, the documentary is complimented by an article about the same subject matter from January 28, 2016 titled, “The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster, 30 Years Later.” I shared this article with my students to provide background information and to ensure their understanding of both tragedies.

In addition to watching the documentary and discussing the article, I asked my students to get into small groups. I then gave them a worksheet with the following five questions to pair and share:

  1. What was the external image of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) before the Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986 – and how did that influence the internal culture at NASA?
  2. How did the need for NASA’s Space Shuttle program to be self-funded influence it’s organizational culture, managerial operations, and decision-making process – especially as it relates to their willingness to take risks?
  3. How did pressure to launch the Shuttle and “amorally calculating managers” result in the death of the 7 astronauts?
  4. What changes were made to the Shuttle program as a result of the Challenger disaster? Did any of the recommendations address changes that needed to be made within the culture at NASA?
  5. What were the similarities between the Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia disasters? Why did NASA’s engineering culture, leadership philosophy, and safety policies still cloud its decision-making and lead to the second disaster?

After 30 years the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster still brings tears to my eyes; I was 11 (almost 12) when it happened and it affected me profoundly. It shattered my innocence. The Columbia disaster was equally as emotional, though by that point, I had experienced many other trials and tribulations of adult life, so it was a less shocking. Knowing that many of the same organizational issues caused the loss of a second Shuttle and her crew made me equally as frustrated and sad.

As a child of the 1980’s, the Space Shuttle program was a pivotal part of my early life experiences; it defined my generationdegree. When Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011, it signaled the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. Although a troubling topic — one of my students commented that it was “heavy” — challenging my students to think about something significant revealed many insightful observations.


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Matthew A. Gilbert, MBA, is a marketing lecturer at Coastal Carolina University, where he teaches advertising, consumer behavior, personal selling, and principles of marketing courses. Research-oriented, he focuses on artificial intelligence, the sharing economy, and social media, with a burgeoning interest in sports marketing. He also facilitates professional development workshops and has delivered three TEDx Talks. As a consultant, he crafts marketing content, creates business curriculum, and composes professional communications.