What the Challenger Shuttle Disaster can teach us about bad launches

Joe Tanner
Mar 17 · 7 min read

When the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded on 28th January 1986, millions around the world witnessed the disaster on live TV. People watched on, helplessly, in horror as the rocket carrying seven American astronauts burst into flames and disintegrated above the Atlantic Ocean.

Those pictures are etched into the minds of all who watched, and even today they are instantly recognisable. The world watched a devastating human tragedy play out in front of them.

It became clear relatively quickly that the world had just witnessed one of the most visible mechanical failures in history.

What we didn’t know at the time, however, was that we had also just witnessed one of the most visible organisational failures of all time.

What actually happened?

Ice gathering on the Challenger Shuttle launch gantry

28th January was an uncommonly cold day in Florida, where the launch took place. It was cold enough for ice to cover whole sections of gantry and control panels. Previously, the coldest launch ever undertaken by NASA was 6 degrees celsius warmer than it was on the scheduled launch day.

73 seconds into Challenger’s flight, an O-ring used to join two sections of metal pipe on the right rocket booster failed. The cold weather had prevented it from fastening tightly, and it rapidly became loose. This allowed hot gasses to act like a blowtorch, burning a hole in the external casing of the rocket. Rapid decompression then caused a tank full of liquid hydrogen to smash into a tank of oxygen, causing a fireball that rapidly engulfed the Challenger nearly 15 kilometers above the ocean.

Horrifyingly, later investigation determined that 3 of the astronauts had actually survived this initial fireball, only to be killed when their compartment hit the ocean at over 300kmh having fallen, essentially, from space.

Memo from the head of the engineering team warning of the risk to the O-rings

How did this happen?

Engineering teams at NASA working on the O-rings were aware of issues with the O-rings. Indeed, on the day of the launch, they warned that the cold temperatures posed a risk to the integrity of the part.

However, this launch was not just a scientific endeavour — it was a political one. The astronaut team was the most diverse in history, there was a female high-school teacher set to become the first ‘civilian’ in space, alongside another female astronaut. This crew of 7 were the hope of their generation. Set in the context of the Cold War and at a cost of over $3.2billion, this was more than a rocket launch — it was a message to the world.

As such, the pressure on NASA to launch was immense.

Early on the morning of 28th January, the engineering team urged a postponement to launch due to the cold weather. However, later that morning under immense pressure from NASA (who in turn were presumably under pressure from the US Government), the team softened their stance and the launch was approved. This set in motion the disastrous events we all witnessed later that day.

Ultimately, something was launched that should not have been launched.

Who was responsible?

Whose responsibility was it to prevent the launch of the Challenger on 28th January?

They’re all culpable, in different ways. The true failure is systemic and organisational, and there are important lessons to be learned.

What can we learn?

Let’s apply this scenario to innovation and growth — how many times has your business launched something that really shouldn’t have been launched?

I’m not talking about those C- grade new initiatives that achieve limited success, I’m talking about those complete catastrophes that never make it through 6 months. We’re talking Oakley Thump, Tata Nano, Facebook Phone, Fyre Festival, those sorts of calamities.

Many of us spend a lot of time pushing our businesses to launch more, but launching something that should never have existed can be poisonous.

The consequences may not be as catastrophic as the Challenger Disaster, but there is a huge amount of waste involved. These large-scale failures waste time, attention, money, shareholder patience, customer goodwill, employee engagement, blood, sweat and tears. Overall, they make it harder for you to successfully launch next time

How do the Challenger dynamics play out in these scenarios?

The Engineering Team:
This part is played by your project teams, tasked with developing and launching new propositions.

These teams are at the coalface of innovation, doing the really tough work. They’re the ones with in-depth knowledge of the customer, they’re the ones doing user testing, they’re the ones working through the night to complete the latest round of UX sketches. When a proposition is testing badly or there are clear flaws in the business case, they are the first to see the issues.

They’re also usually the ones lower in the corporate hierarchy. They often want to please as much as they want to speak truth, because that is what corporate cultures inadvertently encourage.

If a launch shouldn’t be going ahead, they’re often in the best place to see that, but the least well placed to do something about it.

The NASA Management:
This role is played by your senior leaders and C-Suite, tasked with setting and managing strategy for growth.

In the innovation journey, these individuals tend to be gatekeepers of budget and resources. They also have the best view of the whole innovation portfolio, and how the business is developing as a whole. Endorsement and support from senior leaders is often the biggest unlock for any project team, meaning they can make or break any project quickly and decisively.

However, they rarely have detailed visibility and rely on their teams to accurately and honestly report what they are seeing on the ground.

These individuals have the greatest ability to prevent an ill-advised launch, but are wholly reliant on others to provide the information to make that decision.

The US Government:
This role is played by your Board of Directors and by your Shareholders.

They rarely have any input on specific projects or launches, but they can set the overall environment in which a business operates. Their greatest strength is their ability to take a genuinely big-picture view of the business, and exert influence to make sure this view is accounted for in strategic decision making.

However, the influence they have can be substantial and this can place immense pressure on leaders to make certain decisions regardless of the practical realities on the ground. At times, this can stifle innovation, at others it can mean too many green-lights are given to projects that should never have got off the ground.

What action can we take?

Ultimately, innovation is a quality game, not a quantity game. One breakthrough is worth twenty incremental new lines.

Delivering breakthroughs means constantly separating what we could do from what we should do, with great precision, at pace.

As with the Challenger Disaster, every individual in your organisation has a role to play, not only in launching successful innovations but also in preventing the wastage that comes from launches that should never have happened.

The trick for most businesses is to establish cultures, processes and mindsets that enable these three groups to work as checks and balances on each other without impeding speed or agility.

In my experience, this essentially boils down to three actions you can take:

Beyond these three actions, however, is a more human acknowledgement — hearing a ‘no’ is so much harder than hearing a ‘yes’.

If you hire great people and listen when they tell you to launch something new, for heaven’s sake listen when they tell you not to.

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Joe Tanner

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Innovation, Strategy & Entrepreneurship

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