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The Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia Accidents

23 Nov 2016Science and Technology Essays

It has been claimed that the engineers were to blame for both the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle accidents and we shall, therefore, look into the failure on the part of management and the extent to which they are responsible for the failures of the two missions.

Space programs have enormous implications, pressure and expectations as regards the result as in countries like America the whole is usually watching. This paper I will argue that the decision-making power on whether to launch or not should be made by the engineers and not the management as they are in a better position to establish whether a space shuttle can be launched without the risk of accidents.

As per the investigations that have been carried out into the causes of both the Challenger and Columbia disaster the management was found to have played a role in the disaster. The NASA management in the case of the Space Shuttle Challenger was found to have ignored safety concerns raised by the engineers. Therefore it is, therefore, safe to say that if the management had paid attention to the concern raised by the engineers the accident would not have taken place.

The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster was attributed to structural flaws though in almost all previous missions a foam insulator had broken off but had not caused any significant amount of damage. However, in this particular case, the chief thermal protection system engineer and other engineers raised concern but the managers did not respond.

The Space Shuttle Challenger burst into flames just 73 seconds after launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing all seven crew on board. This was caused by the failure of the O-ring in the right Solid Rocket Booster at liftoff. The O-ring is a rubber ring which seals the joint around the connection point between the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) and the Hydrogen tank. The failure of the O-ring was attributed to low temperatures, close to 31 °F (−1 °C), at the launch which was below the minimum temperature permitted for launch.

The engineers at Morton Thiokol, the contractor responsible for the construction and maintenance of the shuttle’s SRB’s, had raised concern that the temperature would affect the resilience of the rubber O-rings and that they did not the data necessary to establish whether the joint would seal properly. This was discussed by the engineers and managers at Morton Thiokol, NASA managers from the Kennedy Space Center and those from the Marshall Space Flight Center. The concerns were not heeded by the Morton Thiokol management who recommended that the launch proceeds as scheduled. NASA’s managers pressured the Morton Thiokol management by requiring them to prove that the launch was unsafe rather than prove it was safe and since they were unable to prove that the launch would unsafe their concern and recommendation was totally disregarded.

The launch proceeded as planned and barely 2 minutes into the flight, the Challenger burst into flame killing all the seven crew onboard. Subsequent investigation revealed that the O-rings were responsible for the tragedy and further investigation revealed that the failure was caused by the failure of the O-rings to seal the joint between the srbs. This, therefore, points to a breach of engineering ethics and negligence on the part of the management both at NASA and at Morton Thiokol, and thus they were entire to blame for the tragedy.

The Space Shuttle Columbia burst into flames during its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere only 16 minutes before it was scheduled to land at CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida. This was attributed to the damage caused when a piece of foam insulation broke off the Space Shuttle external tank and struck the left wing during liftoff. The foam piece is said to have struck the leading edge of the left wing which damaged the Shuttle’s Thermal Protection system (TPS) which shields the Shuttle from the extreme heat generated as a result of friction between the Shuttle and the earth’s atmosphere during re-entry. The NASA manager back on earth downplayed the extent of the damage caused by the insulation foam and went on to make a statement that it was not a safety threat, they even declined to request from other agencies claiming that nothing could be done. This not withstanding the engineers should have gone on and taken the images they required to establish whether

This was an outright poor management decision by Lind Ham, head of the Space Shuttle Managers, as she declined several requests made by NASA engineers for high-resolution images of the left wing to be taken to establish the exact extent of the damage. The managers also rejected the idea to have an image of the shuttle's left wing taken before re-entry. This was attributed to the managers low level of concern and their one minded decision to have the mission continue, this made the engineers found themselves in a position similar that of those responsible for the Challenger in that they were required to prove that the situation was unsafe rather the norm which was to prove that the situation was safe. 

Therefore though this tragedy was mostly attributed to structural flaws the management could not be let off the hook as they had to try and come up with a solution. The problem, in this case, is that though the engineers tried to do something nothing could be done as the final decision was reserved to the Space Shuttle Program management.

Decision-making on whether a shuttle should be launched or not should be made by the engineers and not the management. It was evidence in the case of the Challenger whereby the decision making was left to the management who in trying to comply with their launch schedule disregarded the safety concerns raised by the engineers both at NASA and at Morton Thiokol. The management can be said to have been driven by the fear of having any more delays as this would make them look incompetent and they were, therefore, afraid that they would lose funding which they received from the government.

The NASA management was fully briefed of the danger that was posed by proceeding with the launch in those kinds of temperatures. They were even part of the group, include engineers from the Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center, that discussed what would be the outcome if the shuttle was launched in such conditions to which the engineers responded that they did not have enough information to determine whether the O-ring would seal the SRB joint properly.

This should serve as enough evidence that such kind of decision should not be left to people who do not have the safety concerns of their colleagues as the top priority no matter the stake. It should be noted that where an engineer(s) raise concern, the mission should not go any further until those concerns have been addressed and there is no other concern or doubt on the performance of any of the equipment on the shuttle(s).

The managers also find themselves in very difficult situations as in most situations they are under pressure to deliver in the provided time failure to which they will be assumed to be incompetent and not capable of delivery. The Space Exploration program is considered to be a symbol of America’s intellectual power and also serves as a show of its might and it is used as a way to remind the rest of the world that America is still the most developed country in all facets. Therefore in cases where the managers are under tremendous amounts of pressure, they tend to downplay “small hitches” which involve overlooking engineering ethics and order the continuation of the mission so that they can come out as being able to deliver this acts as a boost when they seek funding (Charles, 2008).

Therefore as per the evidence that was tendered in investigation into both the Columbia and Challenger disasters the decision to launch should be an engineering decision and not a managerial decision as in the case studies above the management disregarded very credible concerns by the management which if heeded even if not in the Columbia case would have prevented the disaster.


  • Charles, B. (2008). Engineering Ethics. New Jersey : Pearson/Prentice Hall

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