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The paper analyzes the two previous space shuttle disasters, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. It is divided into three primary sections: introduction, findings, conclusion, and recommendations. The report evaluates the objective, scope, methodology, limitations, assumptions, and background information in the first section. As a result, it presents the fundamental tenets that lead to an explanation of the terrible occurrences. The findings, on the other hand, are examined in terms of the missions' objectives, technical issues, decision restrictions, accessible alternatives, and the reasoning for making final judgements in varied scenarios. Conclusion sections provide in-depth analysis of circumstances resulting in the observed failure by jointly integrating different factors together. Finally, the recommendations are drawn from the discoveries in the findings and the conclusions. The suggestions are suitable approaches that NASA can relevantly adopt to prevent future occurrence of avoidable disasters in the space shuttle missions.

The Challenger and Columbia Disaster's Analysis


The history of shuttle missions in the United States comprises of both success and failures most of which are attributable to decision-making processes (Jenab et al. 2015, p.9). The National Aeronautics and Space Administration play a key role in determining the final decisions regarding the launch of space shuttles in America (Jenab et al. 2017, p.67). However, the two significant mission failures that are Orbiter Challenger Shuttle and Space Shuttle Columbia reveals valuable insights that can inform decision-making processes in future shuttle missions. Therefore, this case analysis reports will examine the two incidents that are the Challenger and Columbia disasters to suggest recommendations for future decisions.


This study aims at making recommendations that will result in disaster prevention based on the previous incidents mainly Challenger and Columbia Disasters.


Examining the two disastrous events in the history of American shuttle mission will reveal the decision-making processes, stakeholders, alternatives, and other factors to make suitable suggestions intended to reduce disaster occurrence in the shuttle missions.


The analysis report is based on the previous research works and reports on the two incidents of disaster that are the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles. Further information will be collected from reputable media sources such as newspapers and the official communications from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). All the sources will be keenly considered to establish causes of the mission failures and likely areas of weakness that could be acted upon to avoid such occurrences especially given the decision-making processes.


There are several limitations to the report including;

Absolute reliance on the secondary sources which may be biased resulting in erroneous conclusions.

Difficulties in locating all the needed information concerning pre-occurrence and post event accounts.

Conflicting accounts of the events which make it difficult to establish a shared understanding of the facts resulting from the incidents

The report is guided by assumptions that are not based on scientific data and therefore lack authenticity.


It is important to consider the following assumptions which will act as guidelines to the intended outcomes;

Disaster Occurrence

The report assumes that the events resulting from accidents that are in the case of Orbiter Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttles were within the human control. It implies that there were relevant precautions that NASA decision makers could have taken to avoid the disasters.

Credibility of Sources

The report assumes that the sources of information are credible and provides accurate accounts of events as they unfolded before the disasters and after the events.


It is assumed that the proposals in this report will be action points that NASA can adopt to inform its decision-making process in the current and future shuttle missions to avoid further disasters.


The breaking apart of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1896, was to send appropriate signals to NASA and provide long-term lessons that were to see safety measures as a priority issue in the shuttle mission (Post 2014, p.121). However, on February 1, 2003, a similar incident occurred whereby space shuttle Columbia also exploded on its way back to Earth (Ibrahim & Hoffner 2008, p.95). The first incident occurred shortly after the launch of the spaceflight killing all the seven astronauts on board. As a result, there were serious damages to the reputation of NASA and a great shock to the whole nation. Following the report on the incidents, it was rational to believe that NASA would make appropriate approaches to avoid a similar occurrence in the future (No Author p.429). On the contrary, the destruction of Columbia points to same negligence and inadequate decision-making process which if allowed to continue, the success of shuttle missions in America will remain susceptible to avoidable disasters. It is on these grounds that this report seeks to identify loopholes in the decision process and suggest ways of filling the existing gaps.


The results section will examine the objectives of the shuttle mission, technical problems, decision constraints, alternative, and the final determination for each of the affected space shuttle.

Space Shuttle Challenger


The launching of the space shuttle Challenger was an accomplishment of a previous set of targets earlier established by the presidential decree in the year 1970 (No Author p.428). In the case of the Challenger shuttle mission, the launching was to fulfill the establishment of Earth-Orbiting space station. Therefore, the predetermination of the mission objective pointed into two major aspects. First, the mission was a means to an end and the decision makers disregarded obvious constraints in its planning. Secondly, there was a compromise in the decision making strategies since the predetermination of the objectives required an open attitude. As a result of the nature of these missions that is their complexities, there were noticeable uncertainties that remained unaddressed. Also, the execution of the mission did not follow Category II decision-making strategy as per the requirement (No Author p.428). The routine operations without particular objective for each mission ensured a recurrent trend with minimal concerns about safety and the likely consequences.

Technical Problems

The decision process also overlooked critical structural problems (Allinson 2016, p.97). Notably, the space shuttles were designed in a way that they could prevent hot gasses leakage. For instance, when the booster casing ballooned due to ignition stress, the primary O-ring was intended to form a seal to cover the gaps through which hot gasses could leak. At the time of making the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger, O-ring and other critical items had not been fixed despite concerns of their erosion (No Author p.427). It implies that the space shuttle was vulnerable to an explosion that would result from hot gasses leaking from the rocket booster and creating a hole in the external fuel tank. The other aspect that the decision makers ignored but was very vital to the success of the mission is the low temperatures which were evident at the time of the launch. The certification of the vehicle was clear that it was not to be started at very low temperatures that were prevalent during the period of the decision making. Moreover, the disregard to the likely impacts of the low temperatures resulted in the final determination. Low temperatures harden O-rings thus lengthening the time taken to seal the gaps created by the bending metal parts (Allen et al. 2016, p.23). As a result, the hot gasses leaked since extrusion took a long time compromising the timely sealing of the gaps.

Decision Constraints

The decision making occurred at a time when there were multiple constraints (Beck & Plowman 2013, p.1236). Decision making had to reflect the efforts of NASA in enhancing the political favor following the 1970 declaration. Both internal politics within NASA as well as external differences between the Soviet Union surfaced. Organizational constraints including matrix structure and undefined responsibility crippled the ability to enforce sound decisions. Other obstacles such as an institutional image which could be damaged by failure to accomplish a predetermined objective, technical issues and the environmental aspects piled pressure on the decision makers. Consequently, NASA could not dispense its duties as mandated resulting into a hasty decision which overlooked the most critical issue in the space shuttle mission, safety (No Author p.429). These factors jointly cause a dilemma among the decision makers and could easily subject them to erroneous conclusions.


Amidst all these conflicting factors, there were alternatives to the decision that the team could make (No Author p.427). Some of the alternative resolutions that could be adopted include;

Reschedule the launching of the space shuttle to a later date according to the advice of Morton Thiokol-the contractor.

Fix the O-rings and other critical items in the space shuttle before launching to reduce the vulnerability.

Follow the certification instructions on the environmental requirements in making the launching plans.

Prioritize technical and environmental constraints key consideration in making the final decisions to launch the space shuttle.

The Final Decision

Regardless of the prevailing conditions, the NASA decision-making team finally decided to start the Challenger on January 28, 1986 (Lunenburge 2010, p.4). A critical look at the final decision reveals that it was made earlier, that is the year 1892 when the space shuttle program was confirmed to be operational. Therefore, the prevailing conditions such as technical problems and inclement weather which determined the success of the mission were not adequately considered. Moreover, there were clear indications that the decision-making strategy was altered in the case of space shuttle Challenger. In as much as the objectives and the launching schedules were predetermined, the case of Challenger was evidently a Category II designation (Lunenburg 2010, p.5). On the contrary, the team resolves to Category I decision strategy which did not allow for consideration of the environmental changes and rescheduling. Instead, the environment was assumed to be constant and the schedule for launching irreversible.

Space Shuttle Columbia

It was rational to expect that the lessons that were learned during the explosion of Challenger were to yield significant lessons that were to inform future decisions concerning space shuttle missions (Woods 2009, p.289). The occurrence of another space shuttle disaster seventeen years later expose new findings into the organization of NASA decision making process and their preparedness to address rising situations.


The launching of the space shuttle Columbia also formed part of the primary purpose established by the 1970 presidential decree (No Author file p.426). Plans to put up an international space station were underway at the time of the incident pointing to the fact that the mission was part of plans to fulfill the objective of earth orbiting space linked to the Earth. Therefore, the aim of the mission in the case of Columbia was intertwined with the overall space shuttle mission. It implies that the mission objective was predetermined reflecting a similar scenario in the event of 1986. Notably, the goal did not override the decisions and the conditions, owing to the fact that Columbia was successfully launched and reached its destination (Ibrahim & Hoffner 2008, p.94). However, the predetermination of the objective to initiate the space shuttle is a pre-decision which had consequences in the disastrous outcome.

Technical Concerns

The technical problems that resulted from the incident were common among the space shuttles that are pieces of foam dropping from the shuttle's external tank (Jenab et al. 2015, p.2015). Meanwhile, at the time of launching the mission that is Jan 16, 2003, a similar occurrence was discovered. It came as a later discovery for the investigating board which realized that the shuttle's external tank had released a large piece of foam which had fatal implications on the spacecraft wing. The foam strike caused a breach in the left wing of the vehicle, a technical problem that the decision makers kept unexposed for the 16 days while astronauts conducted experiments in space. Notably, the foam strike had caused a hole on the left wing. The resulting consequences included entry of atmospheric gasses in the shuttle as it moved. It could also result in loss of sensor and ultimate destruction of the space shuttle. Columbia Accident Investigation Board later discovered failed attempts by several people who wanted to closely monitor the breached wing due to ignorance of the NASA officials who were in charge. As a result of the decision makers' decline to examine the breach on Columbia's left wing, they made an erroneous conclusion that later led to the disastrous outcome (Allinson 2016, p.100). Engineers believed that the foam collision could cause serious damages if it adversely affects the wing but these concerns were not adequately addressed within the period the shuttle spent in the orbit.

Decision Constraints

The major constraints in the case of Columbia were organizational, technical, and environmental. The organizational structure did not permit access to the information regarding the foam strike (Hall 2016, p.130). As a result, it was impossible to act upon the damaged wing to avoid the incident. Internal politics within the organization also contributed to the denial of access which could bring the department of defense on board to establish the damage using orbital spy cameras. The technical constraints included the inability to address the problem comprehensively within the 16 days Columbia took in orbit. In this case, the organizational cultural practices played a significant role in preventing any attempt to remedy the situation. Notably, NASA had a fixed mindset that there were minimal chances of rectifying the situation. Conversely, even the little opportunities that were available were never exhausted (Niewoehner & Steidle 2009, p.13). Finally, as pointed out by Donahue (2006, p.141), inclement weather conditions such as stormy seas in the recovery areas further worsened the situation leading to crash of search helicopters which killed two pilots aboard.


Upon the realization of the foam strike and the likely result, the NASA decision-making team had several options that could rescue the situation (Jenab et al. 2017, p.67). Below are some of the relevant steps;

Examining the Damage

NASA management was to make necessary efforts to ascertain the damage that was caused by the large piece of foam captured in the launch surveillance cameras (Paloski et al. 2008, p.16). In this case, the department of defense would come in handy through the use of orbital spy cameras to determine the extent of damage due to the collision. As a result, it was going to provide insight into the necessary remedies that would avert the disaster

Repair of the shuttle. Space shuttle Columbia would have delayed its stay in orbit beyond the 16 days to allow time for the launch of shuttle Atlantis which could have been moved forward. It implies that the technicians would have been allowed some time to repair the hole created by the foam strike (Post 2014, p121). Through repairs, the air drag could have been reduced allowing steering rockets to overcome the likely turbulence which resulted into severe deceleration.

Getting the Crew out of Columbia

In case that NASA was convinced that little could be done to repair the space shuttle while in orbit then it was prudent to devise a means of getting the crew off Columbia (Allen et al. 2016, p.23). Instead of ignorantly waiting for the undesirable outcome that was already cautioned by the engineers, the NASA decision makers were to organize and send another space ship that is Atlantis in time to rescue the crew from the anticipated disaster.

Final Decision

The decision to remain silent on the likely damage caused by foam strike indicated disregard to the available alternatives (Lunenburg 2010, p.3). There were no attempts to make any steps towards remedying the situation within the two weeks Columbia stayed in orbit. On the other hand, neglect of the safety issues played a vital role in perpetrating the occurrence of the disaster. The prevailing organization culture which resulted in a decline from giving concerned parties access to the foam struck areas on the left wing only led to erroneous choice in the end. The final decision also indicated the existence of structural barriers which hampered the communication process resulting in compromise of the safety information that could save the lives of the seven crew members on board. Notably, the decision also pointed at negligence on the part of the NASA senior officers who knew the existence of foam leaks but considered it an insignificant factor in the decision-making process. After disaster had occurred, the investigating board discovered that the final decision to allow the space shuttle to travel back without repair and they did not take any alternative approaches to solving the identified problem (Woods 2009, p.289). As a result, the hole in the left wing resulted in severe damage and final disintegration of the space shuttle.


The unfortunate loss of the two shuttles that is Challenger and Columbia were within the human control. Therefore, they did not fit the description of an accident since that would suggest that such incidents are routine on the space frontier. Looking back at the circumstances surrounding the 1986 incident, when Challenger exploded a few seconds after its launching, weaknesses in the decision-making process is evident. For example, a Category II decision-making strategy was casually treated and subjected to closed decision process permitting no concern for the prevailing conditions. In the event of launching the shuttle, NASA decision makers ignorantly disregarded the technical situation of the O-rings and other critical items in the shuttle. Moreover, they avoided any alternative decisions that would avert the occurrence of the disaster. It implies that there was an opportunity to prevent the collapse from fixing the technical problems with the space shuttle and leading to the required launch temperatures.

Similarly, the conditions resulting into the disintegration of space shuttle Columbia were within the control of a human. In as much as it was considered accident as evident in the naming of the investigating board that is Columbia Accident Investigating Board (CAIB), NASA had sufficient opportunity to avert the occurrence, but they decided not to act. The large foam that fell off the external tank of the shuttle was a sufficient reason to instigate a rescue plan. The decision makers knew pretty well the consequences that could result from such foam strike especially on the wing of the shuttle as the Engineers had instructed. Moreover, the launch cameras indicated that the collision had occurred on the left side only that it was not clear on the exact point. Regardless of all these actionable evidence and the more than 16-day opportunity to rectify the damage, the NASA decision makers resorted to keeping quiet about the damage and even declined to issue pictures to several people within the organization. It was such detrimental decision based on ignorance that caused the disastrous loss of lives and shuttle in February 2003.

The occurrences also point to the existence of loopholes in the decision-making process as well as prior knowledge of the disasters. Loopholes in decision making were more evidence in the fact that the senior management chose to disregard the set procedures for a Category II decision strategy and opt to abide by the predetermined schedules as established in the presidential decree. It points to the lack of independence among the decision makers within NASA which the fruits are evident in the case of Challenger. A closer look at the two disasters reveals a prior knowledge of their occurrences since critical concerns remains a mystery to many people. NASA had a clear warning from technicians in both cases but chose to ignore. For instance, the organization contractor Morton Thiokol warned the decision makers of the likely consequences that would face the Challenger. On the other hand, the engineers advised NASA on the impacts of foam strike on the wing of the space shuttle beforehand since the problem had been existence in the past missions. Amidst all these and even the video showing the foam striking the left wing of Columbia, the decision makers still could afford to be silent and fail to take any action. Failure of reason to answer these concerns leads to the conclusion that policy makers had a prior knowledge of the likely occurrence of both disasters.


Disasters involving space shuttles as in the two instances are painful experiences that persistently tarnish the image of the decision-making institution, NASA especially upon the realization of negligence on such critical issue. They also result in loss of lives leaving families and the whole nation weird memories of fallen specialists who offered themselves for the success of the country. It must also be remembered that some of those who perish in the space shuttle disasters are fathers and mothers who leave behind deep wounds in the hearts of their children and relatives (Ibrahim & Hoffner 2008, p. 94). Their necessary steps should be considered in making decisions to avoid these fatal occurrences. Based on the findings and conclusions stated above, the following recommendations are deemed fit to prevent future occurrence of space shuttle disasters;

NASA should adopt traditionally time-tested strict safety standards (Donahue 2006, p.141). It implies that technical and environmental concerns should be adequately addressed before launching a shuttle mission or allowing the mission to continue. Therefore, sufficient camera should be put on the shuttle to monitor foam shedding to make the timely adjustment carefully. On the other hand, other technical concerns such as the conditions of critical items such as O-rings should be handled with more care so that technical problems are sufficiently addressed. Other safety standards include environmental concerns. The shuttles should only operate under certified environmental conditions that are within the acceptable temperature ranges regardless of the predetermined schedules.

Managerial decisions should fit the circumstances to avoid flawed decisions (Paloski et al. 2008, p.20). In the case of Challenger, it was necessary to follow Category II choice strictly. As a result, it would allow for consideration of alternatives. Furthermore, the objective to launch should be articulated and should not only be seen as a routine and repetitive process intended to accomplish initial plans. Additionally, decisions should be made to address the situations at hand. Shuttle missions face different circumstances that cannot be adequately dealt with by fixed decision. The decisions should be as flexible as possible depending on the situation to exhaust every alternative solution to the rising circumstance.

Structural reforms are necessary steps for consideration within NASA (Niewoehner & Steidle 2009, p.15). As a result, it will eradicate detrimental practices such declining to provide vital information that could save lives and removal of barriers that cripple communication flow and compromise safety standards. The restructuring the organization will allow for an opportunity to learn from the previous mistakes instead of focusing on past success. Therefore, the structure will enhance safety standards and redefine the decision-making process to suit circumstances. Finally, the new set of structures within the organization should be accorded certain level of independence to enable them to make relevant choices in the face of an emergency. Such aspects of freedom should include making specific objective for each shuttle mission to avoid the routine practices based on predetermined schedules.


No Author (The Challenger Disaster: A perspective). N.d.

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Hall, J.L., 2016. Columbia and Challenger: organizational failure at NASA. Space Policy, 37, pp.127-133.

Ibrahim, A., Ye, J. and Hoffner, C., 2008. Diffusion of news of the shuttle Columbia disaster: The role of emotional responses and motives for interpersonal communication. Communication Research Reports, 25(2), pp.91-101.

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Woods, D.D., 2009. Lessons for Enhancing Resilience from Columbia. Organization at the Limit, p.289.

May 10, 2023

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