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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?

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For the exclusive use of M. Mendez, 2016. AMY C. EDMONDSON 9-603-068 REV: OCTOBER 21, 2002

AMY C. EDMONDSON

9-603-068

REV: OCTOBER 21, 2002

Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

At 8:45 p.m. EST on January 27, 1986, 32 individuals from three locations—Huntsville, Alabama; Brigham City, Utah; and Merrit Island, Florida—joined in a teleconference 12 hours and 53 minutes prior to scheduled launch of the Challenger Shuttle, known inside NASA as 51-L. 1 (Exhibit 1 lists attendees at each site). The three sites joined two organizations—NASA and Morton Thiokol—that were intimately involved in the Shuttle program. Roger Boisjoly, an engineer with Morton Thiokol, 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. Boisjoly had been increasingly vocal over the last few months about the performance of a component of the Shuttle design, the O-Rings, at low temperatures (Exhibit 2 lists events from the year prior to launch). 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.S. government one year after the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. Although NASA was created as a civilian space exploration program, in many ways the organization was the expression of a military culture in which the goal was to establish U.S. dominance over the Soviet Union in space exploration. To this end, NASA received abundant funding from Congress and by 1969 the crew of the Apollo mission walked on the moon. Following Apollo, the goal of U.S. space exploration was to establish a permanent, manned space station. A three-point plan was presented to a nation that had become increasingly embroiled in the Vietnam War. Tight funding meant that plans for the space program were scaled down; in March 1970, Nixon approved the Space Transportation System (STS), the backbone of the three projects supporting NASA’s long-term goal.

History of the Shuttle Program

The Space Transportation System, or Shuttle Program, 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, NASA used the designation STS (Space Transport System). After STS-9 NASA changed the method on numbering missions: each flight was since designated by two numbers and a letter, e.g. 41-B. The first digit indicated the fiscal year of the scheduled launch (“4” for 1984), the second digit identified the launch site (“1”—Kennedy Space Center, Florida, “2”—Vandenberg Air Force Base, California), and the letter corresponded to the alphabetic sequence for the fiscal year (“B”—the second mission scheduled). ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Professor Amy C. Edmondson and Research Associate Laura R. Feldman prepared this case. This case was developed from published sources. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management.

Copyright © 2002 President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800-545-7685, write Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA 02163, or go to http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business School.

This document is authorized for use only by Marife Mendez in 2016.

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Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

be-developed space station. Continued financial constraints prompted NASA to accept a proposal from the Air Force to build the Shuttle to Air Force specifications (i.e. meet criteria for military use) in exchange for additional funding from Congress and the White House. However, the Air Force was unwilling to pay for some of the specifications that they required. A 1971 analysis by Mathematica, Inc. (a Princeton, New Jersey-based think tank), found that even with the Air Force-induced increase in development costs, the Shuttle Program could pay for itself—if it were launched very frequently (over 30 times per year). Program survival was dependent on routine flights, recovering costs, and making money on commercial payload. 2

Funding for the STS program was scaled down to $5.1 billion; modifications to the Shuttle design reflected the lower-cost operation. A new design replaced the costly all-liquid fuel system with a mixed solid (Solid Rocket Booster, or SRB) and liquid (External Tank) system. The three components of the Shuttle included a reusable Orbiter, an expendable External Fuel Tank, and two reusable SRBs, shown in Exhibit 3.

NASA divided responsibility for the Shuttle among three of its field centers: the Johnson Space Center in Houston dealt with the Orbiter; the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama was assigned the main engines, External Tank, and SRBs; and the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Merrit Island, Florida (the launch site), had to assemble the components.

Morton Thiokol

On November 20, 1973, NASA granted the contract to build the SRBs to the engineering firm Morton Thiokol. 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., Lockheed Propulsion Co., 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. The modular design relied upon O-Rings to seal its large—yet narrow enough to transport through highway tunnels—component parts. When assembled, each SRB was 149 feet in length (by comparison, the Statue of Liberty was 151 feet tall), 12.7 feet in diameter, and weighed 2 million pounds.

Thiokol’s segmented design was modeled after United Technologies 1950’s Titan III solid fuel rocket motor. 3 Unlike United’s design, which relied on a single rubber O-ring, Thiokol used two O- rings to seal the joint between each segment and prevent blow-by, or leakage of hot gases during take-off (see Exhibit 4 for a drawing of the SRB and joint). 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.

O-rings

Problems with Thiokol’s SRB design were uncovered as early as 1977. 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. 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. The participation of civilian Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist for the Teacher in Space Project, was widely publicized, heightening media coverage of flight 51-L.

  • 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.

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Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

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to monitor two conditions—erosion of the primary O-ring and blow-by—both of which reduced the integrity of the joint seal. If the primary O-ring was eroded then the secondary O-ring, instead of serving as a backup, could actually reduce the chances that the joint would seal.

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. 4 However, this change was not thoroughly communicated within Thiokol. Boisjoly, an engineer of 27 years and an expert on booster seal joints, performed post-flight analysis on SRBs recovered from the Atlantic Ocean. Boisjoly learned of the reclassification only in 1984. He became increasingly alarmed about seal failure following the April 29, 1985 launch of flight 51-B in which both O-rings in the nozzle joint eroded, the primary O-ring by two-thirds of its diameter. Despite the higher criticality rating, NASA responded to the mounting risk by waiving launch constraints on a case-by-case basis, rather than grounding the entire fleet of Shuttles. One contributor to the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident observed the decision-making involved was

A kind of Russian roulette

(The Shuttle) flies (with O-ring erosion) and nothing happens.

.... Then it is suggested, therefore, that the risk is no longer so high for the next flights. We can

lower our standards a little bit because we got away with it last time but it shouldn't be done over and over again like that. 5

....

You got away with it,

In July 1985 Thiokol formed an unofficial seal task force to solve the O-ring problems. Along with data from previous Shuttle launches, the task force focused attention on a test from March of that year demonstrating O-ring rigidity and failure to seal at low temperatures. Dissatisfied by Thiokol’s attitude towards the task force and the seal problem, Boisjoly wrote a memo to his boss, Bob Lund, in which he warned of the catastrophic consequences of uncorrected O-rings (the memo is reproduced in Exhibit 5). Following receipt of the memo, Boisjoly was accused of histrionics by Joe Kilminster, VP for Space Booster Programs, in the Thiokol cafeteria.

In an October 4, 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. 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, 1986

A teleconference between several Thiokol and NASA officials convened at 5:45 p.m. EST to discuss Thiokol’s concerns and recommendation against launch before noon due the effect of low temperatures on SRB joints. The teleconference ended by scheduling a second conference for 8:45 that evening, allowing more personnel to be present and adequate time for Thiokol to prepare materials for facsimile to KSC and MSFC. (Exhibit 6 shows the materials transmitted by fax from Thiokol to NASA at the beginning of the 8:45 p.m. EST meeting).

  • 4 Criticality ratings indicated the degree of uncertainty involved with the reliability of a component or system.

  • 5 Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Washington, D.C.:

Government Printing Office, 1986. Vol II, Appendix F. Available at http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/missions/51- l/docs/rogers-commission/Chapter-6.txt (accessed October 10, 2002).

  • 6 Source: Ibid, Appendix D. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/v1p254.htm (accessed October 10, 2002).

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Exhibit 1

Teleconference Attendees

Present at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Huntsville, Alabama

Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

Present at Morton Thiokol Wasatch Division Brigham City, Utah

1.

George B. Handy, Deputy Director, Science

1.

Jerald Mason, Senior Vice President, Wasatch

and Engineering

Operations

2.

Judson A. Lovingood, Deputy Manager,

2.

Calvin Wiggins, Vice President and General

Shuttle Projects Office

Manager, Space Division

3.

Leslie F. Adams, Deputy Manager, SRB

3.

Joe C. Kilminster, Vice President, Space Booster

Project

Programs

4.

Lawrence O. Wear, Manager, SRM Project

4.

Robert K. Lund, Vice President, Engineering

Office

5.

Larry H. Sayer, Director, Engineering and

5.

John Q. Miller, Technical Assistant, SRM

Design

Project

6.

William Macbeth, Manager, Case Projects,

6.

J. Wayne Littles, Associate Director for

Space Booster Project

Engineering

7.

Donald M. Ketner, Supervisor, Gas Dynamics

7.

Robert J. Schwinghamer, Director, Material

Section and Head Seal Task Force

and Processes Laboratory

8.

Roger Boisjoly, Member, Seal Task Force

8.

Wilbur A. Riehl, Chief, Nonmetallic

9.

Arnold R. Thompson, Supervisor, Rocket

Materials Division

Motor Cases

9.

John P. McCarty, Deputy Director,

10.

Jack R. Kapp, Manager, Applied Mechanics

Structures and Propulsion Laboratory

Department

10.

Ben Powers, Engineering Structures and

11.

Jerry Burn, Associate Engineer, Applied

Propulsion Laboratory

Mechanics

11.

James Smith, Chief Engineer, SRB

12.

Joel Maw, Associate Scientist, Heat Transfer

Program

Section

12.

Keith E. Coates, Chief Engineer, Special

13.

Brian Russell, Manager, Special Projects, SRM

Projects Office

Project

13.

John Schell, Retired Engineer, Material

14.

Robert Ebeling, Manager, Ignition System and

Laboratory

Final Assembly, SRB Project

14.

Boyd C. Brinton, Morton Thiokol

Manager, Space Booster Project

 

15.

Kyle Speas, Morton Thiokol Ballistics

Present at Kennedy Space Center (KSC)

Engineer

Merrit Island Florida

14.

Cecil Houston, MSCF Resident Manager,

1.

Allan J. McDonald, Morton Thiokol Director,

at KSC

SRM Project

15.

Stanley R. Reinartz, Manager, Shuttle

2.

Jack Buchanan, Morton Thiokol Manager, KSC

Projects Office

Operations

16.

Lawrence B. Mulloy, Manager, SRB

Project

Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident,

Volume

1,

Chapter

5.

Washington,

D.C.:

Government

Printing

Office,

1986.

Available

at

http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/v1ch5.htm (accessed October 15, 2002).

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Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

Exhibit 2

The year leading up to the launch

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Challenger Flight 51-L was originally scheduled for July 1985, but by the time the crew was assigned in January 1985, launch had been postponed to late November to accommodate changes in payloads. The launch was subsequently delayed further and finally rescheduled for January 22, 1986.

!

January 1985 - Boisjoly discovers serious erosion of the O-rings from the Discovery (51-C).

!

March 1985 - Preliminary tests at Thiokol suggest that O-rings do not work as well in low temperatures.

!

April 1985 - O-ring failure in nozzle joint occurs at launch temperature of 70 degrees. NASA requests full review of rocket joints.

!

August 1985 - Thiokol management briefs NASA on all joint seal problems. NASA concludes it is not an issue worth grounding the entire fleet and tells Thiokol to fix it as they go along.

!

January 12, 1986 - Columbia (61-C) lifts off after a record-setting seven delays over 25 days.

!

January 21, 1986 - NASA announces it is seeking bids for a second source (besides Thiokol) to supply SRBs.

!

Late January, 1986 - Several delays to the Challenger mission because of weather.

!

January 27, 1986 - Dan Rather stated on the CBS evening news, “Yet another costly, red-faces-all- around space-shuttle-launch-delay. This time a bad bolt on a hatch and a bad weather bolt from the blue are being blamed.” Launch rescheduled for 9:38 a.m., January 28, 1986.

Sources: Adapted by casewriter from Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996; and from materials used by Action Design Associates in conjunction with video to teach interpersonal skills for organizational learning.

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Exhibit 3

Space Shuttle Systems

Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

For the exclusive use of M. Mendez, 2016. 603-068 Exhibit 3 Space Shuttle Systems Group Process

Artist’s drawing depicts the Shuttle stacked for launch in view from dorsal side of Orbiter (left) and from the left side of stack.

Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Volume 1, Chapter 1. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1986. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/v1ch1.htm (accessed October 10, 2002).

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Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

Exhibit 4

Thiokol’s Solid Rocket Booster

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For the exclusive use of M. Mendez, 2016. Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

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Exhibit 4 continued

Thiokol’s SRB joint

Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

For the exclusive use of M. Mendez, 2016. 603-068 Exhibit 4 continued Thiokol’s SRB joint Group

Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Volume 1, Chapter 4. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1986. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/v1ch4.htm (accessed October 10, 2002).

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Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

Exhibit 5

Boisjoly’s memo to Bob Lund

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Exhibit 5 continued

Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

For the exclusive use of M. Mendez, 2016. 603-068 Exhibit 5 continued Group Process in the

Source: Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Appendix D. Washington, D.C.:

Government Printing Office, 1986. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/v1appd.htm (accessed October 10, 2002).

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Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

Exhibit 6

Facsimile from Thiokol to NASA officials

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For the exclusive use of M. Mendez, 2016. Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Volume 1, Chapter 5. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1986. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/v1ch5.htm (accessed October 10, 2002).

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Exhibit 6, continued

Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision (A)

For the exclusive use of M. Mendez, 2016. 603-068 Exhibit 6 , continued Group Process in

Source: Report to the President By the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Volume 4, Hearings of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident: February 14, 1986. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1986. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/v4part6.htm#6 (accessed October 10, 2002).

Exhibit 6, continued Plot of Flights with O-Ring Incidents versus Weather-Induced Joint Temperature

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-13-

Exhibit 6, continued Plot of Flights with O-Ring Incidents versus Weather-Induced Joint Temperature For the exclusive

Source: Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Volume 1, Chapter 6, p 146. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1986. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/v1ch6.htm#6.3 (accessed October 11, 2002).

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