Friday, October 07, 2005

NASA Website Analysis: The Effects of the Challenger and Columbia on NASA Culture and Climate

The Challenger Disaster and Investigation
While researching the Challenger on NASA’s website, I found one posting listed under “Non-NASA sites” that was particularly interesting to me for two reasons. Not only did the author provide organizational related factors to the Challenger disaster, but more importantly, that NASA included these flaws on their website, rather than conceal them, was interesting and very surprising. “The Challenger Shuttle Disaster” by Jack Forrest, identifies key factors of the Challenger accident as not only hardware failures, but as flaws in the decision making, varying priorities, and mismanaged information at NASA. The Challenger was doomed to fail. Forrest explains that there were too many political, commercial, and scientific demands to declare the Challenger as “fully operational”. Premature decisions were made based on immense pressures to satisfy multiple priorities of such a highly publicized subject in the American public (McAuliffe as First Teacher in Space). Even before the launch of the Challenger, the NASA environment was “diseased” and one of low employee morale, conflicts, stress and short cuts.

The Columbia Disaster and Investigation
During the investigation of the Columbia disaster, Senator John McCain made a statement at the first of a series of committee hearings, and addressed that the nature of the manned space program will be examined. He briefly outlined many of the issues needed to be reviewed, including NASA’s management efficiency, or lack there of, and its correlation to the possibility of compromised safety. This was very interesting because unlike the Challenger disaster, an authority figure addressed the topic of organizational factors contributing to the disaster and was open about its investigation. McCain explained that the “accidents forced attention on the broader policy issues that have [been] neglected for too long”. This statement made me think, was he referring to issues that trace back to even before the Challenger, over 17 years before the Columbia explosion?

Organizational Culture and Climate of NASA
My research of the Challenger and Columbia disasters led me to my observations about the culture and climate of NASA. Although there was no mention of the Challenger and Columbia disasters in the brief history section of NASA’s website, which I found very odd due to their large significance, I understand why they would exclude that information in an effort not to boost their flaws. Moreover, I think that NASA has had a shift in culture and climate over years, especially after the Challenger, to becoming an environment more conducive to openness and transparency. This shift is evident in the way officials in the most recent disaster addressed potential management issues as contributing factors. Also, based on the website, there seems to be increased employee morale, compared to the “diseased” environment, with a more a positive and unified goal of leading the world in space exploration. It’s interesting to see how NASA realized a need for overall improvement to prevent such disasters from reoccurring.