The Columbia Accident

The Columbia Accident


The United States has experienced or seen its fair share of calamities and accidents. These seem to have increased with enhanced technology. Accidents involving space shuttles may be less prevalent than others involving vehicles and airplanes, but when they happen, they cause quite a stir that lasts a long time. One of the most quoted space shuttles accidents in the United States history is The Columbia Accident, which occurred in 2003. Of course, the space shuttle accident resulted in massive losses, in financial terms, as well as in terms of lives as none of the seven member crew was recovered (Koestler, 2004). Cabbage and Harwood (2009) note that, the space shuttle broke apart, with its wreckage becoming scattered across Western Louisiana and East Texas. Unfortunately, as much as the shuttle may have been different, the mistakes were similar to the ones that had resulted in a similar accident, in 1986. Comparing the findings of different reports done in different times, it is evident that the Columbia Accident was history repeating itself. Going by the reports and assuming that they were true, at least in part, the accident may be blamed on reasons that rest on the broader cultural and political constraints that were (and still are) equally real to the NASA employee as were the technical constraints. It is worth noting that the space shuttle was touted as the next step for the United States to maintain its space leadership, as well as retain jobs for varied individuals working with NASA, not to mention contractors in key states. However, the space shuttle program resulted from numerous compromises on operations, costs, timelines, design and mission. These compromises resulted in a shuttle system presented to the nation as safe and robust, yet it needed heroic efforts and actions so as to manage the numerous issues surrounding it. The multiplicity of issues surrounding the program resulted in the mistakes that caused the Columbia Accident. Stillman (2005) notes that, the mistakes were founded on the complex relationship existing between the internal decision-making behavior of NASA and its external environment.

According to Cabbage & Harwood (2009), the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which had been formed to investigate the disaster, had blamed the space shuttle’s accident on an enormous piece of foam that had fallen from its external tank thereby breaching the left wing of the spacecraft. It is worth noting that the problem of space shuttles with foam had been known to the NASA for years, something that had brought NASA under the intense scrutiny of the media, as well as the United States Congress for having allowed the situation to continue unabated. It is noted that approximately 82 seconds after the space shuttle left the ground, it had an enormous piece of foam falling from the bipod ramp that composed the structure that attached or connected the external tank to the body of the space shuttle. A video picture from the launch appeared to depict the foam striking the left wing of the space shuttle. It is worth noting that the Department of Defense had reported to be prepared to make use of the orbital spy cameras so as to have a better view of the breached wing. This offer was, however, declined by NASA officials. The investigations later revealed that the left wing developed a hole which allowed the bleeding of atmospheric gases into the space shuttle as it carried out its fiery re-entry. This resulted to the breakdown of communication between the astronauts and the base, just before the Columbia was lost. One would hope that the accident motivates NASA to undertake scrupulous attention to detail and ensure that such technical problems are resolved.

Such resolution, however, is dependent on the dedication and commitment pertaining to political forces external to NASA in exploring the space. On the same note, it is imperative that NASA ensures that its launch schedules are in line with the available resources. A report by CAIB also recommended that NASA gets more predictable political support and funding, which would also allow for replacement of the shuttle with an entirely new system of transportation (Cole& Cole, 2003). This notion is supported by Stillman (2005) who states that adequate resources have been affecting the capacity of NASA to cope with its launch schedule, as well as its commitment in safeguarding a robust safety organization.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) noted that NASA had organizational practices and cultural traits that allowed for the growth of practices that threatened the safety of space shuttles (Gehman et al, 2003). According to the CAIB report, the increased shuttle engineering contracting had resulted in a reduction in the safety oversight carried out by NASA civil servants, not to mention the fact that the safety activities of fundamental system had been delegated to the contractors. The Human Space Flight Program had moved from an all-inclusive oversight inspection process to a comparatively limited insight process thereby reducing the mandatory inspection points by well over a half, as well as leaving fewer workers to undertake 2nd and 3rd shuttle system checks (Koestler-Grack, 2004). This was done in an effort to synchronize the inspection regime to the ISO 9000/9001 protocol. As the CAIB report noted, the operating assumption that the organization could reduce their responsibility for shuttle safety, and lower their direct involvement had its foundation on the mischaracterization of the 1995 Kraft Report that had indicated that the shuttle was a reliable and mature system (Koestler-Grack, 2004). It is worth noting that the increased awareness that characterized programs that were still being developed was replaced, based on the notion that may be reduced without compromising on the safety (Gehman et al, 2003). This, however, was flawed as increased dependence on contracting would make it necessary that NASA enhances its communication, as well as safety oversight processes rather than reducing them as had been done (Koestler-Grack, 2004). In this regard, NASA must incorporate effective leadership that enhances a risk-averse attitude, which would then be combined with trust and openness. This leadership should permeate into the appointments, where individuals who appreciate flight safety are incorporated in the management.

In addition, both CAIB and the Rogers Commission had found fundamental deficiencies in the oversight and communication functions. Under the United Space Alliance (USA) and Space Flight Operations Contract (SFOC), NASA is charged with the responsibility of managing the entire process of safeguarding the shuttle safety (Cabbage & Harwood, 2009). However, these reports noted that NASA did not have the processes, qualified personnel or even the desire to undertake the duties. According to the CAIB report, the shifting of responsibilities under the Space Flight Operations Contract (SFOC) enhanced the complication of the already complicated (and complex) structure of the shuttle program and established hindrances to effective communication (Cabbage & Harwood, 2009). Moreover, NASA had for a long time been engaging in reduction of the workforce and outsourcing, something that culled from its workforce layers or experience, as well as hands-on knowledge of the system that had at one time been the pillar for capacity oversight.

On the same note, CAIB recommended that NASA evaluates that ruthlessly eliminates the safety problems so as to enhance safety of astronauts in future missions (Cabbage & Harwood, 2009). Stillman (2005) also underlines the importance of incorporating a structure that would offer the crucial checks that allow accountability in program managers regarding safety issues. The Board had noted that NASA had been relying on past successes, which seemed to substitute sound engineering practices (Starbuck & Farjoun, 2005). As the final CAIB report concluded, the tragedy resulted from organizational and technical failures. This is especially considering that the foam problem in the bipod area had been in existence for years, with engineers having looked for varied strategies of correcting it (Cabbage & Harwood, 2009). It stated that the spacecraft should never have launched while the problem still existed. In addition, the board noted that as much as the shuttle had in previous occasions returned safely even after the foam had hit the wing, NASA’s managers should have incorporated and considered the requests of their engineers in ensuring that they avert the destruction of Columbia’s wing in this flight (Cabbage & Harwood, 2009). On the same note, it was imperative that NASA came up with backup plans that would allow for the fixing of the space shuttle whenever such problems developed in space, as well as safeguarding the safety of the crew in case the wing became badly damaged.

One of the most crucial cultural issues that faced the space shuttle program revolved around feelings of honesty and openness with all the workers, where the voice of every individual was valued. As the CAIB report noted, varied anonymous messages were posted on NASA’s Watch website, which testified to deficiency of psychological trust and safety among NASA’s employees about speaking up or voicing their concerns (Koestler-Grack, 2004). On the same note, CAIB report made a critical note pertaining to the behavior of managers where it stated that they were not receptive to the concerns of the engineers. The conclusion of the report was to the effect that the behavior emanated partly from the fact that managers did not listen nor did they ask (Gehman et al, 2003). The report noted that the engineers could not voice their concerns pertaining to the safety risks of the shuttles with the line managers as the latter downgraded the risks as acceptable through quick fixes and unacceptable rationales (Starbuck & Farjoun, 2005). In essence, managers were a hindrance, establishing barriers against any dissenting opinion through outlining preconceived conclusions that were based on subjective experience and knowledge and not on solid data. An indicator of the sort of atmosphere that existed at that time may be the statements incorporated in the 1995 Kraft Report, where concerns pertaining to the safety of the space shuttle were dismissed with individuals who had made them being labeled partners in unnecessary “safety shield conspiracy”.

Nevertheless, it would not be easy to manage the behavioral patterns in NASA especially considering that they are functions of interrelated personal, as well as interpersonal issues. Starbuck & Farjoun (2005) note that the management style may be addressed via strategies such as mentoring, training, as well as proper selection of individuals to take up management positions. However, junior employees would take time before they can learn to trust the senior ones (Cabbage & Harwood, 2009). This, however, does not undermine the fact that the work environment was extremely unhealthy as the management did not allow dissenting opinions or stifled any questioning attitude exhibited by the employees. However, this behavior did not emanate from the low importance of safety, rather it was because the management was self-absorbed believing that they could sufficiently run the plants safely without “wasting time” on learning from external benchmark plants or internal critics (Starbuck & Farjoun, 2005). It is imperative that the managers are taken through extensive and creative coaching and training programs, which will allow them to change their mental models and assumptions and give them an opportunity to learn new skills especially pertaining to sensitivity to other people’s perceptions and emotions alongside their own (Cabbage & Harwood, 2009). Those who are unwilling to change should just move out of the organization, which would allow more and more people in every level of the hierarchy to contribute ideas, as well as support efforts to change up to such a time that that behavior is incorporated fully in the organization.

Rogers Commission had also recommended that inter-center rivalry be eliminated through reverting to the centralized management as JSC would be transferred to the Headquarters (Koestler-Grack, 2004). This would also enhance control and communication over the field offices. This is especially considering that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board had identified organizational barriers as having been hindering effective communication of vital safety information.


Starbuck, W., & Farjoun, M. (2005). Organization at the Limit: Lessons from the Columbia Disaster. Oxford: Blackwell Pub.

Stillman, R. J. (2005). Public Administration; Concepts and Cases 9th ed. New York: Cengage Publishing

Gehman, H. W & United States Columbia Accident Investigation Board, (2003). Columbia Accident Investigation Board: Report. Arlington, Va.: Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Cabbage, M & Harwood, W (2009). Comm Check…: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia. New York: Simon and Schuster

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Koestler-Grack, R. A. (2004). The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Edina, Minn: ABDO Daughters.

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Cole, M. D., & Cole, M. D. (2003). The Columbia space shuttle disaster: From first liftoff to tragic final flight. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers.

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