The Challenger Disaster Is An Example Of The Consequences Of Management Failing To Listen To Their Employees

Many people know of the challenger disaster that occurred on January 28th 1986, when NASA’s space shuttle program launched the shuttle challenger, only to have it explode within around a minute after launch. What made matters even worse was that the mission had been publicized for months before, as a regular civilian and teacher Christa McAuliffe would accompany the crew and give the first lesson from outer space, which millions would tune in for. Unfortunately the never made it and all seven crew members lost their lives on a day that will forever loom as infamous in NASA’s history.

In the aftermath of the disaster the country was looking for answers and almost immediately a presidential commission was called to figure out what failed that day, however what most people didn’t know, was that a select few were pretty sure what happened and in fact they had recommended against the launch the day before. What eventually came to light was that an O-Ring , which is basically a joint connecting two parts of the rocket, had its seal fail due to the cold temperature. While there was no specific temperature that they couldn’t launch under, there was past examples of cold temperature having a negative effect on the flexibility of the O-Ring’s seal under pressure. While nothing fatal had ever become of it, many of the engineers still saw it as a potential hazard when launching.

What most of the country didn’t know at the time and would ultimately take years to come out, was that a managerial mistake on the side of both NASA and the private company contracted to make the shuttle, Thiokol. Amongst forecasts of a cold front moving into the Floridian launch site area, and concern that it would affect the launch, management officials at NASA contacted Management officials at Thiokol and asked about whether or not the cold front would be a reason to postpone the launch. Almost immediately the O-Ring situation came to mind and NASA officials asked Thiokol what was the lowest temperature that they recommended launching at. Thiokol went to its engineers and had them come up with a number which they felt would not be the lowest temperature point at which a launch should take place. That number was 54 degrees F, while the launch was facing a possible 18 degrees F temperature.

NASA management refused to accept the temperature the engineers had suggested and changed the question to whether or not they had any specific proof that the O-Ring’s seal would fail at such a low temperature. As one of the engineers on the conference call later recalled, one of the head NASA managers said in an aggressive tone “what, do you expect us to wait until April to launch?” At that point the engineers did not and although most of them urged management to not take the risk of launching that day, Thiokol said they had no proof and NASA management decided to go ahead, but would first require a signature from Thiokol that everything was okay. The man who was supposed to sign the signature at Cape Canaveral, flat out refused to his boss and said the risks were too high at which point his boss signed instead. As stated before, the launch would go through and with children all over the country watching on Television, the O-ring’s seal failed and caused the loss of seven lives. This tragedy is a prime example of how important managerial decisions can be and what can happen if they refuse to listen to their staff. Had the managers listened to the engineers and postponed the launch, the mission might have been a success.

This lesson can be implemented in almost every part of life. If you are managing people who you trust and believe have the know how to support you, trusting them to make the right decision is key. There are two sides, both the managers and the managed that need to cooperate and trust that the other will do their job competently, for a venture to succeed. If either side fails to do so, the results can be fatally disastrous or just financially disastrous. The managers that day no doubt didn’t actually think that they were putting people in danger when they made that decision, but by no listening to their qualified staff of engineers, did exactly that. The Challenger disaster is a tragic, yet important lesson on what can happen if management is incompetent on trusting its employees.