The Space Shuttle Disasters: Organizational Fog at NASAPosted: August 6, 2012
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, responsible for putting the first human being on the moon and building the first reusable launch vehicle, was a symbol of American pride, technical ingenuity, and managerial excellence. Given NASA’s thirty-year track record of historic achievements, the nation was shocked when the space shuttle Challenger “blew up 73 seconds after liftoff because an O-ring seal on one of the booster rockets failed” (Shafritz, Russell, & Borick, 2011, p. 74). The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (1986), charged with determining the cause of the accident, would find that NASA engineers knew about the problems with the O-rings and attribute the accident to faulty decision making by NASA management. Seventeen years later, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart over the western United States, an accident the Columbia Accident Investigation Board found was caused by similar organizational failures; known problems that were deemed acceptable, isolated decision-makers that did not listen to experienced technical staff, and pressure to launch, concluding organizational culture was as much to blame as the technical failures. Shafritz, et al. (2011) describe the faulty decision-making by NASA administrators using the metaphor of Clausewitz’s “fog of war”, or the uncertainty resulting from too much information, political pressure for performance, and cultural barriers. NASA is not alone in susceptibility to the “fog of war”. Rather, most large organizations suffer from the same problem because of the compromises caused by limited resources, accountability to a variety of stakeholders, and the power of organizational culture to enforce norms of behavior.
Following the success of the Apollo program, NASA had ambitions to build a series of increasingly large space stations that could house up to 100 people, ambitions that would require the economics of a reusable launch vehicle (Cayatte, 2008). However, with the election of President Nixon, political priorities changed in Washington and with subsequent budget cuts, NASA had to scrap their ambitions for large space stations, instead accepting the mission to “revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it” (Nixon, 1972, p. 1). The new mission allowed NASA to continue development of the space shuttle, while forgoing their original purpose, in favor of building a vehicle that would allow “men and women with work to do in space [to] “commute” aloft, without having to spend years in training for the skills and rigors of old-style space flight” (Nixon, 1972). The new mission was the result of an agenda compromise and incremental decision-making in reaction to the struggling economy of the early seventies. Unfortunately, the political compromise contributed to mission fog, given the shuttle “was designed to be a transportation system, to go someplace else, but it eventually became, because of the lack of money, its own destination” (Cayatte, 2008, p. 1). Moreover, the space shuttle program needed to become cost-effective by hauling military and commercial satellites into low-earth orbit, further altering the shuttle design and introducing production performance pressure into a research and development agency.
Historically, “NASA’s form of organization emphasized deference to expertise and minimized the number of political appointments at the top of the administrative structure” (Romzek & Dubnick, 1987, p. 231). However, the introduction of production pressure resulted in increased political and bureaucratic accountability, to a variety of stakeholders, including the President, the Congress, the media, and the program’s military and commercial customers (Romzek & Dubnick, 1987). The increased political and bureaucratic accountability introduced subtle, yet powerful influence into the day-to-day decisions of NASA administrators. For example, while NASA considered safety the number one priority, the “launch schedule was right up there with it. We were showing the congress and the American public that we’ve got a space truck here that’s ready to go, let’s go start doing other things in space…[it is] extremely important that we meet those schedules and keep the operating cost of the vehicle down” (Cayatte, 2008, p. 1). Accountability to a variety of stakeholders influenced the organizational structure and priorities of NASA, making production performance, at a minimum, the equal of safety, a situation that would also influence NASA organizational culture.
Organizational culture is considered “the set of shared, taken-for-granted implicit assumptions that a group holds and that determines how it perceives, thinks about, and reacts to its various environments” (Schein, 1996, p. 236). As accountability at NASA changed, so did organizational culture. With conformance to production goals placed in the forefront of the agency’s thinking, the safety function took a back seat, as NASA was “immersed in a culture of proof. That is, they were required to prove …that there was a mission critical problem that necessitated the postponement of the launch” (Hall, 2003). Moreover, miscommunication between management and technical staff was frequent and there was a cultural aversion to send bad news upward (Winsor, 1988). It is said that success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan, a metaphor that reflects the agency’s culture during the program. Despite foreknowledge of the problems with the O-rings, the information simply did not reach decision-makers that were blinded from the facts by a cultural fog.
The reality of large organizations, and notably public organizations, is that most must operate in an environment of limited or scarce resources, requiring mission compromise and incremental decision-making. For public organizations, limited resources are an increasingly common fact of life, given the rising percentage of budget allocated to entitlement spending. Because of the scrutiny of a variety of stakeholders that influence public agencies, pressure for performance is commonplace. In particular, political pressure is a pervasive presence in most public agencies, as politicians seek to demonstrate their success and influence on behalf of their constituents. Limited resources and incremental decision-making frequently cause compromises to a public agency’s mission. In order to avoid being blinded by “the fog of war”, public administrators need to carefully assess how accountability to diverse stakeholders and organizational culture may be impacted by mission compromise, particularly given how central accountability and culture are to defining norms of organizational behavior.
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