The tragedy of the space shuttle Challenger exploding after launch in 1986 was the topic of a recent Science Channel movie aptly called The Challenger Disaster. But the real tragedy, as the movie and recent science articles depict, was the bureaucratic gridlock that almost prevented the true cause of the malfunction from being discovered. Engineering students looking for good research paper topics may want to explore the science involved in the malfunction. Psychology and government majors could examine the group-think that permeates large organizations and hampers investigations when things go wrong.
The Challenger Disaster movie
In November the Science Channel featured its first original dramatic feature film, The Challenger Disaster. In the movie William Hurt stars as physicist Richard P. Feynman who sat on the commission that sought to explain why Challenger exploded during its launch on January 28, 1986. The movie is based on Feynman’s memoir, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, which chronicles his work on the commission.
Also in the cast were Bruce Greenwood as Air Force General Donald Kutyna and Brian Dennehy as William P. Rogers, the commission chairman. “[The movie is] a tale of scientific inquiry butting up against bureaucratic self-interest, with Feynman as the gadfly who wants to go snooping into areas that some people do not want explored,” wrote Neil Genzlinger in “The space shuttle that fell to earth,” on the New York Times website, November 15, 2013.
Space Shuttle Challenger
The Challenger had already gone on nine successful missions, one of which was carrying the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride. On its tenth mission, it carried a crew of six plus Christa McAuliffe, a grade-school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire. The shuttle’s mission was to release a tracking and data satellite, and McAuliffe was to give lessons from orbit to school children across the country. After two delays and freezing temperatures at the Kennedy Space Center that produced icicles on the equipment, the launch was officially approved for January 28, 1986, 11:38 a.m.
But 73 seconds after launch, the shuttle’s fuel rockets engulfed in flames, exploded in the air and produced a vapor trail that lingered in the sky. As large chunks of the shuttle fell into the Atlantic Ocean, spectators on the ground were stunned. A few days later, President Ronald Reagan created a commission of 13 experts, test pilots and scientists to find the cause of the disaster.
Discovering the truth
The focus of The Challenger Disaster movie was to show how persistent commissioners dug through bureaucratic red tape and employees’ fear of losing their jobs to find the truth. With more than 2.5 million parts, the Challenger was the most complex machine ever built. Eventually the commission uncovered the cause.
“Cold weather had compromised an O-ring seal on one of the shuttle’s two solid rocket boosters, resulting in hot gas burning through the right booster, damaging the hardware that connected it to the vehicle and causing the structural failure of the shuttle’s external fuel tank,” explained Robert Z. Pearlman, in “Smithsonian considers display of Challenger, Columbia shuttle debris,” on Space.com, posted February 1, 2011. In the movie, Feynman learned that there was a much bigger problem than just the faulty O-rings.
Cover up? The psychology of bureaucracies
Several engineers and scientists working on the shuttle before its launch did not have faith in the O-rings. They knew that freezing weather would compromise the integrity of the seals. But the shuttle had already been delayed twice, and flight managers were under pressure from Congress and NASA officials to maintain launch schedules. So the launch of Challenger was green lighted against the protest of some.
The tragedy of the situation was not only the destruction of Challenger in 1986, but that NASA did not learn anything or change its stifling hierarchy. The proof was another shuttle disaster, the break up of Columbia over Texas on February 1, 2003, as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. “In both accidents, investigators found that decision makers were isolated and failed to listen to either in-house or contract engineers who expressed concern about the problem elements,” wrote Julianne G. Mahler and Maureen Hogan Casamayou in their book Organizational learning at NASA: The Challenger and Columbia accidents, 2009, on Questia.com.
Psychology students can use the example of NASA to probe why large organizations are slow to change, improve or learn from mistakes.
Have you studied a bureaucracy that is slow to change?