Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on October 5, 2020.
I have written a number of articles about the leadership lessons learned from the Challenger space shuttle disaster. The recently released Netflix documentary, Challenger: The Final Flight is a four-episode documentary that brings new insights to the disaster through interviews of individuals sharing their recollections of the decision to launch Challenger, as well as film clips of the subsequent investigation.
On Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, resulting in the loss of the shuttle and seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.
Shortly after the Challenger disaster, President Ronald Reagan established a presidential commission to determine its cause. The commission became known as the Rogers Commission, named after William Rogers, former attorney general and secretary of state, who Reagan appointed as its chairman.
During previous shuttle launches, the O-rings of the solid rocket boosters had experienced damage, an issue that NASA knew had to be addressed. The outside air temperature on launch day was 38 degrees Fahrenheit. The Morton Thiokol engineers who designed the O-rings did not want to launch at a temperature below 53 degrees because of the risk that the O-rings would lose resilience and change from pliable to brittle, causing them to leak, resulting in an explosion. The engineers were right.
The film describes the culture at NASA as one of “we can achieve anything” confidence. Due to this attitude, NASA had made unrealistic launch frequency commitments to Congress in order to secure increased funding for the space program. The frequency of shuttle launches was less than what was promised to Congress. This drove the disastrous decision to launch Challenger in cold weather conditions.
A teleconference between Morton Thiokol and NASA just prior to the scheduled launch is described in the film in detail by Allan McDonald, Thiokol’s director of the solid rocket booster program.
During the call, Thiokol’s VP of engineering would not recommend the launch below 53 degrees. Larry Molloy, NASA manager of the Marshall Space Flight Center, responded, “Good God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?”
In an interview from the film, Thiokol engineer Brian Russell, who attended the conference call said, “That was an intimidating comment. It shouldn’t have been made, it came out of a source of arrogance. In my view, it did have an impact on the spirit in that room.”
At that point, Thiokol went off-line to caucus. Russell said that “all of the engineers in the room agreed with the recommendation originally made” – do not launch due to cold weather conditions.
A poll was conducted, but only of the senior Thiokol managers in the room, not of the engineers. When the vice president of engineering was polled, Russell describes his reaction: “He hemmed and hawed about what to do and was torn. That’s when he was told to take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat.” He then agreed to the launch.
Thiokol called NASA back. Joe Kilminster, VP of Space Booster Programs, told NASA, “Even though the low temperatures are concerning, we have reassessed the data and have concluded that it is inconclusive, and it is ok to proceed [with the launch].” This sealed the fate of Challenger.
During his testimony at the Rogers Commission, when asked about the Thiokol recommendation not to launch due to cold weather conditions, Mulloy said, “I found [their] conclusion [to be] without basis and I challenged [Thiokol’s logic].” Chairman Rogers responded, “They construed what you said to mean you wanted them to change their minds, so they were under a lot of pressure to give you the answer you wanted.”
What is the key leadership lesson of the Challenger disaster? Don’t let a commitment to achieve a goal cloud your judgment and ignore the risks of going forward.
In an interview for the film, William Lucas, then director of NASA, said, “I had been aware [of] the problem with the [O-ring] seals. My assessment was that it was a reasonable risk to take. … Thirty years has not changed [the] way I think about it at all. Going into space is something that great countries do. … It’s also risky. You have to take some chances. … My Forebearers crossed the Appalachian Mountains … and some of them didn’t make it. It’s regrettable, but costs sometimes are very difficult. And those lives were it.”
Lucas was taking a risk with the lives of others. Perhaps the seven Challenger astronauts should have been involved in the decision-making process to launch in cold weather conditions since they were the ones taking the risk.
The lessons for all leaders: Listen to your experts. Do not intimidate them into giving you the answer you want, especially when the risk of failure is catastrophic. Don’t let a false sense of confidence blind you to the risks that you are taking. Recognize the brutal facts of reality.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.