NASA's Challenger - the Decision-Making Process

Aug 3, 2018 in Description

In the early 60's, the US government has come to terms with the fact that the potential of science and technology, together with the effective direction and inspiration of the nation by common objectives are able to solve almost all social problems. These views led Kennedy in 1961 to provide the experts (aerospace engineers) with the appropriate authority to deal with problems of a flight to the moon, which further led to the implementation of the “Apollo”. To a large extent this has affected the way in which NASA managed to get permission for the project of “Space Shuttle”. NASA officials, of course, believed that science and technology have the potential to solve many of the world's problems, especially in conjunction with a strong and favorably oriented government (Vaughan, 1996).

Since the 70’s, NASA has invested more than 145 billion dollars in the program of shuttle launch, which has become their main activity, and another $100 billion to the International Space Station, which was to provide a virtually permanent human presence in space. However, on January 28th, 1986, disaster of the shuttle “Challenger” happened. The commission appointed by the President Ronald Reagan concluded that the determining factors that led to the crash were the corporate culture and decision-making of NASA. In 1977, NASA managers were aware of potentially dangerous defects of seals supplied by the contractor Morton Thiokol, but they did not pay enough attention to it. They also ignored the warnings of designers about the dangers of launching a space shuttle at low temperatures that morning and did not report to their superiors about these concerns. Roger’s commission filed NASA nine recommendations, which should have been considered before the resumption of shuttle flights (Solman, 2006).

The “Challenger” and “Columbia” are both a tragic reminder of the outcome of a failure to act in accordance with the collected information. Why is it happened that NASA was not ready - did not want and could not - leave these shuttles on Earth?

NASA had all the data on the damaged O-rings, and it at least should have been set how they could affect the “Challenger”. However, having a choice between leaving the shuttle on Earth before the problem with the O-rings would be solved and continuing to prepare for the flight in accordance with a schedule - NASA has chosen the second option. What were the reasons of choosing this option?

First, concerned NASA engineers could not confirm that the conditions were potentially unfavorable. Dezfuli (2005) describes the process of decision-making by the former NASA engineer Torari Durden (Torarie Durden) as follows:

As an engineer, you are used to the scientific method of problem solving, when you put forward a hypothesis, carry out experiment, get the data and then confirm or deny it. However, NASA confirmation process goes beyond anything I have ever had to hang. It was very difficult to conduct a series of experiments to obtain the data required to confirm your point of view.

Unable to dispose of time, resources, and tools necessary to conduct these tests, responsible scientists were forced to rely on suggestive rather than definitive data. If they provided an update, they would be told that they were not convincing, delaying the launch and calling into question the authority of those who might be better informed. All these keep people from expressing their own opinions.

Second, NASA has used data of the previous success as an indicator of the future security. Richard Feynman describes a way of thinking in NASA, “... Shuttle flies with damaged O-rings and nothing happens. Then it was assumed that the risk for future missions is not so great. We can lower the standards a bit, because the last time we took off” (Dezfuli, 2005). Milton Silveira, former chief engineer of NASA, believes that “when we started to run shuttles again and again, there was false confidence in the system level” (Dezfuli, 2005).

It is common knowledge that the process of decision-making can be rational or intuitive.

Rational decision-making requires a clear adherence to the algorithm, which consists of six steps: 1) definition of the problem; 2) definition of criteria for the selection of decision; 3) designation of criteria weights; 4) development of alternatives; 5) evaluation of alternatives 6) choice of the best alternative.

However, the existence of such circumstances as a high level of uncertainty; lack of sufficient precedents; limited evidence; facts, ambiguity, the right way; unsuitable analytical data for use; existence of several good alternatives; limited time that does not allow to apply a rational approach.

In this case, the decision is made intuitively. Consequently, intuition is not a realized essence of knowledge and experience of the person making the decision. Thus, intuitive decisions are often very successful, especially if the person has the experience in solving similar problems.

The decision-making process is complex and many-sided. It includes a number of stages and operations. The questions of how much and what steps to go through the decision-making process, what is the specific content of each of them - controversial and solved differently by managers. It depends on the qualifications of the head, a situation, management style and organizational culture. It is important that every manager understands the strengths and limitations of each approach and the decision and was able to choose the best option in a given situation while employing their own management style.

What other conditions are needed for effective decision-making? There are two of them: transparent processes (they ensure that the knowledge of the staff and the collected information is used appropriately) and a strong corporate culture (with the help of it, staff work together on the goal). After the collapse of the space shuttle “Columbia”, which found serious errors in decision-making, NASA has developed procedures for a comprehensive review of the latest information. Fateful question, “To start or not?” provoked debate among the public, which involved astronauts themselves.

Simple situations with proper assessment require clear management and control. Therefore, leaders evaluate the facts, break them into categories and then take action based on the standard practice.

Complex situations, as opposed to simple, can mean multiple correct answers, including cause and effect; however, it can not foresee everything. In difficult situations, one perceives, analyzes and then reacts. This approach is not easy, and its use requires experience.

Cognitive scientists and experts in behavioral psychology assert that when making decisions we are largely guided by emotions and subjective evaluations - and suffer from errors. However, these cognitive traps can have a positive impact on the business: seeing how often they get the leaders, we cease to believe in the myth of the lone wise leader.

This myth arose, most likely in the XIX century, when Thomas Carlyle stated his theory of the “great man”. Under the influence of this myth, a CEO is perceived as a unique person who is fighting for the well-being of companies. If we get rid of its influence, we will see what can be the perfect solution to any team (Carlyle, 1869).

If excessive self-confidence is based on the most reliable information and data, it is true self-confidence, promoting progress. Only when person’s self-confidence is false, as they believe in something without justification, there are serious problems.

It must be admitted that NASA’s leadership was under intense pressure as the “Challenger” launch was delayed several times. The credibility of the NASA collapsed to the extent that, as the U.S. budget deficit has grown, and NASA needed by all means to get the support of Congress for the space program. Under these conditions, when the shuttle launch delayed again meant to question the access to finance.

The contractor also did not feel very confident. Thirteen years earlier, Thiokol won the contract for solid rocket boosters from dubious state procurement procedures. It was characterized by some observers as the worst of the dirty political intrigues. This is a small company that has significant penetrating power through political connections, with the result that was chosen.

However, by the summer of 1985, Thiokol’s monopoly was threatened, and the company, fearing for the fate of billion deal, did not venture to stop flying shuttles for sufficient time to correct the deficiencies in the joint design of the accelerator. Senior executives Thiokol’s engineers were still contrary to the recommended starting. NASA followed recommendations. The explosion that killed seven crew members occurred almost immediately after the start.

As a result, the strategic interests were sacrificed to the short term, with the result that further worsened the reputation of both NASA and Thiokol.

Emergency situations require a more interactive communications than any other. Effective means of holding democratic multilateral discussions are methods of large groups (MBG). Therefore, staff generates innovative ideas that help managers to develop and implement complex solutions and strategies. For example, the method of “positive deviation”, a type of MBG, which allows people already working in the organization to discuss solution, not looking for clues in the external practice.

According to TRIZ, to reformulate the situation in such a way that the very wording could cut hopeless and ineffective solutions. This raises the question of which solutions are effective, and what-not.

G. Altshuller (1999) suggested that the most effective solution to the problem is one that is achieved “in itself”, but at the expense of existing resources. Thus, he came to the formulation of the ideal final result.

In practice, the ideal final result is rarely fully achievable, but it serves as a benchmark for inventive thinking. The closer to the ideal solution to the final result one is, the better.

Getting the tools cut ineffective decisions and allows reformulating inventive situation in the standard mini-problem according to the ideal final result, everything should remain as it was, or be a new, useful, quality. The basic idea of a mini-problem is to avoid the significant (and expensive) changes and consider the simplest solutions first.

In case with Challenger, obviously, NASA should take into account that the extent of risk, in case of catastrophe, losses (including human, financial, managerial and political), will be greater than potential benefit from a successful launch. Attracting representatives of official circles to open discussion of the question whether to launch or not, would be a reasonable step. If political aspect was of such a great concern for NASA, and political benefit (especially taking into account political competition with Soviet Union in the sphere of science) was those final result NASA and official circles wanted to receive, they should delay the launch and achieve desirable result after a period of time. For 36 months, when launches of shuttles were blocked after the catastrophe, it was surely possible to remove the problems with O-rings by constructors.

Now NASA experts are trying to identify ways to reduce the accident rate in aviation. Currently, NASA is developing a new plan for Mars exploration. The new strategy will follow the old goals to search for signs of life on the Red Planet. Funding for the program space agency “Mars” was significantly gutted in the new draft budget of Obama. As a result, NASA pulled out of the program “Ekzomars” and decided to alter its plan for robotic exploration of the Red Planet.

To review the action of the Red Planet, NASA decided to get help from the Committee of Planning Programs for Mars (MPPG), led by aerospace engineer Orlando Figuera. The Committee evaluates the possibility of future missions to Mars and seeks to plan objectives in the long term. Furthermore, it attempts to enlist the support of researchers from around the world, and expects from them pieces of advice on how to continue research on Mars effectively on a limited budget. The best of them will be presented in June 2013 at a symposium in Texas. Two months later, in August, it is planned to announce the results. These outcomes will help NASA in the future not to limit the rights of the agency. MakKuiston stated, “The right to make decision remains with NASA that means that what the Orlando team will offer will not necessarily be final” (Dwayne, 2012).

Obviously, the acceptance of right decisions in this project will significantly improve NASA’s reputation and contribute to the development and consolidation of effective decision-making procedures.

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