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Case Study 2: Challenger Launch Decision

Instructions
You will prepare a presentation based on the answers to the questions provided.
Make sure to apply leadership concepts discussed in class to the topic of the
case.
Time length of the presentation is approximately 15 minutes.
The assignment is due at the beginning of the class. Do not forget to bring a
printout of the presentation for me.

Assignment Questions
How would you characterize the broader context surrounding the January 1986
teleconference? What were the organizations in which they worked like? What was the
group against? What impact might that have on the group’s decision-making process?
Put yourself in Roger Boisjoly’s shoes. The teleconference is scheduled for tonight.
What approach will you take with the group to get support for your perspective? What
will you actually say during this meeting?
What issues face Bob Lund (VP Engineering)? What might he be concerned about in the
teleconference meeting? What will you actually say during this meeting?
What issues face Larry Mulloy (Manager, SRB project)? What might he be concerned
about in the teleconference meeting? What will actually say during this meeeting?

Conclusion
Integrate in your answer:
What acctually happened? Why did it happen? What made it difficult for them to discuss
the issues more thoughtfully and analytically? What are the learnings for business
leaders from this analysis?

S. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements. or Shuttle Program. e. Alabama. Brigham City. in many ways the organization was the expression of a military culture in which the goal was to establish U. MA 02163. This case was developed from published sources. stored in a retrieval system. NASA received abundant funding from Congress and by 1969 the crew of the Apollo mission walked on the moon.g. Copyright © 2002 President and Fellows of Harvard College. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion. 32 individuals from three locations—Huntsville. Roger Boisjoly. government one year after the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. the O-Rings.edu. The three sites joined two organizations—NASA and Morton Thiokol—that were intimately involved in the Shuttle program. 2016. No part of this publication may be reproduced. the goal of U. mechanical. was conceptualized as a fleet of reusable spacecraft that would reduce the cost of putting objects into orbit and essentially service the yet-to- 1 For Space Shuttle flights one through nine. Boisjoly had been increasingly vocal over the last few months about the performance of a component of the Shuttle design. Nixon approved the Space Transportation System (STS). write Harvard Business School Publishing. Although NASA was created as a civilian space exploration program. Edmondson and Research Associate Laura R. Tight funding meant that plans for the space program were scaled down. used in a spreadsheet. The first digit indicated the fiscal year of the scheduled launch (“4” for 1984). . manned space station.m. at low temperatures (Exhibit 2 lists events from the year prior to launch). A three-point plan was presented to a nation that had become increasingly embroiled in the Vietnam War. After STS-9 NASA changed the method on numbering missions: each flight was since designated by two numbers and a letter. “2”—Vandenberg Air Force Base.S. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials. EDMONDSON Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) At 8:45 p. recording. an engineer with Morton Thiokol. or illustrations of effective or ineffective management. or go to http://www. space exploration was to establish a permanent. and Merrit Island. Mendez. photocopying. call 1-800-545-7685. known inside NASA as 51-L. the backbone of the three projects supporting NASA’s long-term goal. 1986.harvard. Feldman prepared this case. or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic.1 (Exhibit 1 lists attendees at each site). dominance over the Soviet Union in space exploration. Florida—joined in a teleconference 12 hours and 53 minutes prior to scheduled launch of the Challenger Shuttle. the second digit identified the launch site (“1”—Kennedy Space Center. or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business School. History of the Shuttle Program The Space Transportation System. Following Apollo. had instigated the telconference meeting upon hearing an Air Force weather forecast of 19 degrees Farenheit for the next morning at Kennedy Space Center in Merrit Island. California). sources of primary data. in March 1970. To this end. 9-603-068 REV: OCTOBER 21.For the exclusive use of M. NASA used the designation STS (Space Transport System). Florida. This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016.hbsp. 2002 AMY C. and the letter corresponded to the alphabetic sequence for the fiscal year (“B”—the second mission scheduled). ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Professor Amy C. Boston.S. What were the implications of this new weather forecast for the launch of the Challenger? National Aeronautics and Space Administration The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created in 1958 by the U. Utah. 41-B. EST on January 27.

heightening media coverage of flight 51-L. NASA divided responsibility for the Shuttle among three of its field centers: the Johnson Space Center in Houston dealt with the Orbiter. Program survival was dependent on routine flights. the Statue of Liberty was 151 feet tall).2 Funding for the STS program was scaled down to $5.3 Unlike United’s design. and two reusable SRBs. O-rings Problems with Thiokol’s SRB design were uncovered as early as 1977. (a Princeton. Morton Thiokol On November 20. 2016. or SRB) and liquid (External Tank) system.. and weighed 2 million pounds.For the exclusive use of M. . The three components of the Shuttle included a reusable Orbiter. 2 This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016. 1973. A new design replaced the costly all-liquid fuel system with a mixed solid (Solid Rocket Booster. External Tank. However.7 feet in diameter.1 billion. and United Technologies) and 2) they proposed an innovative modular design that would allow them to build the SRB components in Utah and ship them to Florida for assembly. modifications to the Shuttle design reflected the lower-cost operation. Analysis of a pre-flight hydroburst test found “joint rotation” between the clevis and tang did not apply the required amount of pressure to the O-rings for them to seal the joint properly. Continued financial constraints prompted NASA to accept a proposal from the Air Force to build the Shuttle to Air Force specifications (i. the Shuttle Program could pay for itself—if it were launched very frequently (over 30 times per year). had to assemble the components. 603-068 Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) be-developed space station. Thiokol’s segmented design was modeled after United Technologies 1950’s Titan III solid fuel rocket motor. Thiokol management assumed redundancy in design—the similarity to United’s successful Titan III motor and the double layer of O-rings—would translate to safety in use.e. The participation of civilian Christa McAuliffe. the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville. each SRB was 149 feet in length (by comparison. Lockheed Propulsion Co. and making money on commercial payload. Mendez. was widely publicized. Thiokol used two Orings to seal the joint between each segment and prevent blow-by. and the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Merrit Island. recovering costs. the Air Force was unwilling to pay for some of the specifications that they required. Two factors contributed to Thiokol winning this contract: 1) their bid was $100 million lower than those of the other competitors (Aerojet Solid Propulsion Co. Florida (the launch site). meet criteria for military use) in exchange for additional funding from Congress and the White House. NASA and Thiokol officials continued 2 Payload is the load (including passengers or instruments) carried by a vehicle exclusive of what is necessary for its operation. Payload Specialist for the Teacher in Space Project. found that even with the Air Force-induced increase in development costs. Inc. When assembled. New Jersey-based think tank). or leakage of hot gases during take-off (see Exhibit 4 for a drawing of the SRB and joint). A 1971 analysis by Mathematica. an expendable External Fuel Tank. which relied on a single rubber O-ring. and SRBs. The modular design relied upon O-Rings to seal its large—yet narrow enough to transport through highway tunnels—component parts. 3 Thiokol’s and United’s SRBs differed in one significant way: United’s SRB was designed for a single use while Thiokol’s was intended for repeated usage. Alabama was assigned the main engines. 12. NASA granted the contract to build the SRBs to the engineering firm Morton Thiokol.. shown in Exhibit 3.

in which he warned of the catastrophic consequences of uncorrected O-rings (the memo is reproduced in Exhibit 5). 1985 SRM Seal Problem Task Team Status memo Boisjoly wrote: The team generally has been experiencing trouble from the business-as-usual attitude from supporting organizations. 2002). 4 Criticality ratings indicated the degree of uncertainty involved with the reliability of a component or system. He became increasingly alarmed about seal failure following the April 29. 2002). Appendix D. NASA responded to the mounting risk by waiving launch constraints on a case-by-case basis. Part of this is due to lack of understanding of how important this task team activity is and the rest is due to pure operating procedure inertia which prevents timely results to a specific request…6 January 27.htm (accessed October 10.txt (accessed October 10. could actually reduce the chances that the joint would seal. Available at http://science. In an October 4. You got away with it. VP for Space Booster Programs. If the primary O-ring was eroded then the secondary O-ring. in the Thiokol cafeteria. but it shouldn't be done over and over again like that.. Boisjoly learned of the reclassification only in 1984.nasa. (Exhibit 6 shows the materials transmitted by fax from Thiokol to NASA at the beginning of the 8:45 p.ksc. the primary O-ring by two-thirds of its diameter. Following receipt of the memo. Then it is suggested.. the task force focused attention on a test from March of that year demonstrating O-ring rigidity and failure to seal at low temperatures. allowing more personnel to be present and adequate time for Thiokol to prepare materials for facsimile to KSC and MSFC. Along with data from previous Shuttle launches.. this change was not thoroughly communicated within Thiokol. Despite the higher criticality rating.gov/shuttle/missions/51l/docs/rogers-commission/Chapter-6. 1985 launch of flight 51-B in which both O-rings in the nozzle joint eroded. We can lower our standards a little bit because we got away with it last time. Dissatisfied by Thiokol’s attitude towards the task force and the seal problem. Washington. One contributor to the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident observed the decision-making involved was A kind of Russian roulette. EST to discuss Thiokol’s concerns and recommendation against launch before noon due the effect of low temperatures on SRB joints. EST meeting). 3 This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016. Boisjoly. 1986 A teleconference between several Thiokol and NASA officials convened at 5:45 p. The teleconference ended by scheduling a second conference for 8:45 that evening. Vol II.C. Available at http://history. 5 Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.gov/rogersrep/v1p254.For the exclusive use of M. that the risk is no longer so high for the next flights. (The Shuttle) flies (with O-ring erosion) and nothing happens. an engineer of 27 years and an expert on booster seal joints. Boisjoly wrote a memo to his boss. Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) 603-068 to monitor two conditions—erosion of the primary O-ring and blow-by—both of which reduced the integrity of the joint seal.. Mendez.5 In July 1985 Thiokol formed an unofficial seal task force to solve the O-ring problems.. therefore. 6 Source: Ibid. D. Bob Lund.4 However. . 2016..nasa.m. Boisjoly was accused of histrionics by Joe Kilminster.: Government Printing Office. Appendix F. instead of serving as a backup. Erosion of the primary O-ring on the November 1982 STS-5 flight prompted NASA to increase the criticality rating of the primary O-ring. 1986. performed post-flight analysis on SRBs recovered from the Atlantic Ocean.m. rather than grounding the entire fleet of Shuttles.

William Macbeth. 603-068 Exhibit 1 Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) Teleconference Attendees Present at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Huntsville. Chief. Kilminster. Manager. Wasatch Operations 2. Retired Engineer. Ignition System and Final Assembly. Calvin Wiggins. Structures and Propulsion Laboratory 10. Robert K. 4 This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016. 2002). Mulloy. Kapp. Leslie F.gov/rogersrep/v1ch5. Seal Task Force 9. Deputy Manager. Robert Ebeling. Space Booster Project 7. Ben Powers. Schwinghamer. Morton Thiokol Ballistics Engineer 14. Joel Maw. SRM Project 6. Reinartz. Manager. Chief Engineer.For the exclusive use of M. Jack Buchanan. Material Laboratory 14. Wayne Littles. Washington. Brian Russell. Special Projects. Associate Director for Engineering 7. Space Division 3. Cecil Houston. D. Stanley R. Associate Scientist. Donald M. SRB Project Present at Morton Thiokol Wasatch Division Brigham City. Shuttle Projects Office 16. Kyle Speas. Vice President. Morton Thiokol Manager. McDonald.C.htm (accessed October 15. Morton Thiokol Manager. Available at http://history. Robert J. Adams.nasa. Chief Engineer. Boyd C. Jack R. Heat Transfer Section 13. Technical Assistant. Alabama 1. Chapter 5. Brinton. John Q. Ketner. Supervisor. SRB Program 12. J. Applied Mechanics 12. Supervisor. Engineering and Design 6.: Government Printing Office. Jerry Burn. Case Projects. Gas Dynamics Section and Head Seal Task Force 8. Lund. Manager. James Smith. MSCF Resident Manager. Joe C. Riehl. Space Booster Project 15. Deputy Director. Manager. Applied Mechanics Department 11. John P. Vice President and General Manager. Vice President. Wear. Roger Boisjoly. Material and Processes Laboratory 8. Member. Sayer. Special Projects Office 13. Rocket Motor Cases 10. KSC Operations Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. SRM Project 2. 1986. SRB Project Present at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Merrit Island Florida 1. Engineering Structures and Propulsion Laboratory 11. Lawrence B. Morton Thiokol Director. Keith E. Engineering 5. Space Booster Programs 4. Handy. John Schell. Manager. Nonmetallic Materials Division 9. Volume 1. McCarty. Director. Coates. Manager. Thompson. Miller. Manager. Allan J. Director. Utah 1. Associate Engineer. . Arnold R. Lawrence O. Wilbur A. George B. Jerald Mason. Deputy Manager. Shuttle Projects Office 3. Senior Vice President. 2016. SRB Project 4. Mendez. SRM Project 14. SRM Project Office 5. at KSC 15. Larry H. Judson A. Science and Engineering 2. Deputy Director. Lovingood.

” Launch rescheduled for 9:38 a. and from materials used by Action Design Associates in conjunction with video to teach interpersonal skills for organizational learning. 1986. ! January 12. 1986 . ! January 21. ! Late January. 2016. ! April 1985 . This time a bad bolt on a hatch and a bad weather bolt from the blue are being blamed.. NASA requests full review of rocket joints.O-ring failure in nozzle joint occurs at launch temperature of 70 degrees. . Culture.NASA announces it is seeking bids for a second source (besides Thiokol) to supply SRBs. Chicago. Sources: Adapted by casewriter from Diane Vaughan. ! March 1985 .Boisjoly discovers serious erosion of the O-rings from the Discovery (51-C). ! January 1985 . ! January 27.Several delays to the Challenger mission because of weather. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology. 5 This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016.Thiokol management briefs NASA on all joint seal problems. Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) Exhibit 2 603-068 The year leading up to the launch Challenger Flight 51-L was originally scheduled for July 1985.m. Mendez. 1986 . red-faces-allaround space-shuttle-launch-delay. 1986.Preliminary tests at Thiokol suggest that O-rings do not work as well in low temperatures. The launch was subsequently delayed further and finally rescheduled for January 22.For the exclusive use of M. launch had been postponed to late November to accommodate changes in payloads. ! August 1985 . “Yet another costly.Dan Rather stated on the CBS evening news. 1986 . 1986 . 1996.Columbia (61-C) lifts off after a record-setting seven delays over 25 days. NASA concludes it is not an issue worth grounding the entire fleet and tells Thiokol to fix it as they go along. and Deviance at NASA. but by the time the crew was assigned in January 1985. January 28. IL: University of Chicago Press.

C. 2002). Available at http://history. D.htm (accessed October 10. 603-068 Exhibit 3 Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) Space Shuttle Systems Artist’s drawing depicts the Shuttle stacked for launch in view from dorsal side of Orbiter (left) and from the left side of stack. 2016. Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Volume 1.gov/rogersrep/v1ch1. Chapter 1. Mendez. 1986.For the exclusive use of M. Washington.: Government Printing Office. 6 This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016. .nasa.

Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) Exhibit 4 603-068 Thiokol’s Solid Rocket Booster 7 This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016. 2016. Mendez. .For the exclusive use of M.

2002).: Government Printing Office. Volume 1. Mendez. . 603-068 Exhibit 4 continued Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) Thiokol’s SRB joint Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. 2016. 8 This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016. 1986. D.C.nasa.gov/rogersrep/v1ch4. Chapter 4. Available at http://history.htm (accessed October 10.For the exclusive use of M. Washington.

For the exclusive use of M. . Mendez. Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) Exhibit 5 603-068 Boisjoly’s memo to Bob Lund 9 This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016. 2016.

2002). D. Appendix D. Mendez.For the exclusive use of M.: Government Printing Office.htm (accessed October 10. Available at http://history.gov/rogersrep/v1appd. . 1986. 603-068 Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) Exhibit 5 continued Source: Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. 10 This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016. Washington. 2016.C.nasa.

For the exclusive use of M. Washington. . Chapter 5.: Government Printing Office. Volume 1. D. 2016.gov/rogersrep/v1ch5. Available at http://history. 11 This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016. 1986. Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) Exhibit 6 603-068 Facsimile from Thiokol to NASA officials Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. 2002).nasa.C.htm (accessed October 10. Mendez.

Hearings of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident: February 14.htm#6 (accessed October 10. 12 This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016. 1986. Available at http://history. Mendez.gov/rogersrep/v4part6. 1986. Washington.: Government Printing Office. . Volume 4. 2016. 603-068 Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A) Exhibit 6. D. 2002).nasa.For the exclusive use of M. continued Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.C.

htm#6.For the exclusive use of M. 2016. Volume 1. p 146.3 (accessed October 11.C. Available at http://history. continued Plot of Flights with O-Ring Incidents versus Weather-Induced Joint Temperature Source: Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016. . Chapter 6. 2002). Washington. 1986.gov/rogersrep/v1ch6. D. 603-068 -13- Exhibit 6. Mendez.nasa.: Government Printing Office.