Challenger OV-099. Decision Failure

Technical Report, 2012
8 Pages, Grade: 1:2
Ytt Quaesitum Research (Author)




Knowledge Management Lessons of Failure

Organisation Behaviour Lessons of Failure


Project Management faults in the 1986 Challenger accident come in two dimensions. One points to engineering rigour and discipline, which lays emphasis on design principles and limitations, pre-flight test procedures, system interface and assessment processes. The other, which is driven by human interactions, comes under the heading of leadership and culture. These lessons of failure in the Challenger launch, which have been repeatedly studied, have led to the development of certain aspects of project management and evolved into fields of specialisation. The first construct is to do with Knowledge Management and the second is recognised as Organisation Behaviour. However else examined, it is critical that all mechanisms and faculties of project management result in superior decision making.

Project Management is a responsibility which in a multi-sector environment strives to complete each activity in spite of constraints. In a dozen years the practice has developed into a liberal yet sophisticated process involving many disciplines and specialisations (Evans et al 2007). In application, it is a dynamic process, shifting focus as it moves through the project life cycle. Each phase has a different set of objectives, simply because project management is transitional in itself with techniques of change part of it (Leavitt and Nunn 1994). A phase comprises a set of nonroutine activities with distinct time and resource constraints (Durfee 2008). While these activities seem independent they are actually interlinking. Inevitably, project management compels strong perceptiveness and a practical understanding of these relationships and cross-functions, which are channelled toward specific project goals (Hamel 2006). Extensive collaboration and exchange is a basic task to constantly arrange activities in a well-defined workflow, and to ensure a degree of project success. Although project management is relatively new, it has been widely used since the 1990s (Uluocak, 2009). Notwithstanding, project management is instructive in itself as it is a lengthy, tedious task, and with possibly fatal consequences.


Challenger OV-099 is a shuttle orbiter in the NASA fleet of reusable winged spaceships which went into operation in July 1982. As a component of the shuttle development programme, it started out as a high-fidelity structural test article STA-099 that underwent eleven months of exhaustive vibration testing before its modification from test vehicle to full operational status. The Challenger OV-099 missions include the haulage of the first tracking and data relay satellite, the first night launch and landing of the programme STS-8 and 41-B, the first in-orbit satellite capture and repair operation 41-C, and three Spacelab missions, in addition to the deployment of a wide variety of commercial and scientific payloads. This ship took many space fleet repeat flights, finishing 87 earth orbits that account for over 69 cumulative days in space. Sixty men and women served on the Challenger and achieved the first spacewalk of the shuttle programme STS-6, the first woman in space STS-7, the first flight of an African American STS-8, and spacewalks using the Manned Manoeuvring Units 41-B (NASA 1986).

US aggressive space exploration started out with the Apollo and was followed by the shuttle programme or Space Transportation System. STS consists of a fleet of reusable spacecraft on routine flights to substitute other contraptions placed into outer space orbit. The idea assumes government savings as well as profit from civilian payloads, if not in response to the March 1970 pare down in space exploration funds due to political entanglement in the Vietnam War (Edmondson 2002).

Three NASA field sites were identified for the shuttle programme, with work assignments defined. The orbiter was tasked to the Johnson Space Center in Houston; the main engines and external tank were tasked to the Marshall Space Center in Alabama; and the assembly of components was accomplished from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Morton Thiokol had acted as an external contractor on the Solid Rocket Booster or SRB design and fabrication since 1973. Its selection was particularly for affordability, or a hundred million dollars less, and innovative design in a modular form which relied on O-rings to seal joint components of a narrow large device (Edmondson 2002).

Challenger OV-099 lost seven astronauts 73 seconds into flight when a booster fault caused its explosion in January 1986. One description suggests it began with a strong puff of grey smoke spurting off the aft field joint on the right Solid Rocket Booster which faces the External Tank, indicative of failed or improper joint sealing action. An O-ring unsealed had permitted a combustion gas leak shortly after ignition and set off the craft’s structural break-up. About 45 percent of the orbiter was recovered in a seven-month marine salvage operation. The subsequent interpretation was that the engineers understood the dangers and recognised the limitations of the field joints prior to the launch, but division managers had failed to communicate the implications to the shuttle programme management. In contrast, the post evaluation assessment by the Committee on shuttle criticality review finds no independent and detailed analysis of the hazard (Waring 2002, NASA 1986, NIAT 1988). NSTS Programme Director Arnold Aldrich writes in a commentary, ‘the full implication of the Challenger accident is still unfolding.’

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Engineering rigour, design principles and limitations, pre-flight test procedures and assessment processes

Figure 1 Lessons of failure 1986 Challenger Launch OV-099 (Authored)

Knowledge Management Lessons of Failure

Reasons for failure studied by the GAO have identified the following faults in the Challenger launch decision. 1. cost and schedule constraints, 2. not enough risk assessment and planning, 3. underestimation of complexity and technology maturity, 4. lack of pre flight testing, 5. poor team communication and collaborative exchange, 6. inattention to safety and quality, 7. design flaw, 8. inadequate review process, 9. ineffective systems engineering, 10. staff incompetence (Aldrich 2008).

Eight out of these ten reasons for failure correlate to knowledge management.

In the dimension of Knowledge Management, project management processes supposedly in place are intended to effect systems integration and synthesis from the introduction of design requirements, design formulation, regulatory definitions, materials procurement and discipline of safe conditions and quality. Critical activities are normally identified with the application of several project management tools such as the Failure Mode Effect and Analysis, FMEA, or Risk Breakdown Structure, RBS.

Figure 2 shows the frequency of O-ring thermal distress and better able performance in temperatures above 65oF. The frequency of occurrence does not clearly indicate a consistent pattern, but the severity of the joint function in launch and full operating conditions should be reason enough and technically sufficient to elicit approval for further study.

Plot of shuttle flights by incidence of O-ring thermal distress

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 2 Frequency of Inncidents

(1986 Presidential Commission on space shuttle Challenger accident, Vol. 1, chapter 6, Washington Government Printing Office)

Table 1 presents a collation of information from Thiokol and post assessment reports, using FMEA. This could be a more appropriate representation of technical issues because the FMEA uses qualitative and quantitative information that places engineering troubles in their proper context for management appreciation. Pre-flight tests showed that less pressure was required in the clevis and tang for the O-ring to seal properly but erosion and blow by occurred. Given the sensitivity of the function of joints in the launch process and in full flight conditions, further engineering examination or interpretation should have been required. Severity x Occurrence x Detection= RPN or Risk Priority Number


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Challenger OV-099. Decision Failure
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Challenger OV-099, Knowledge Management, Decision Failure, Organisation Behaviour, Failure Mode Effect Aalysis
Quote paper
Ytt Quaesitum Research (Author), 2012, Challenger OV-099. Decision Failure, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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