The Columbia disaster—the disintegration of the space shuttle—happened in February 2003. All members of the crew of seven astronauts were killed in the crash. This case study gives a detailed description of the events and describes the main causes of the disaster.
The first reason is related to the frequent debris strikes that had happened several times during previous missions. Next, the time constraints of a tight schedule had a significant role in decision-making regarding the shuttle’s mission; the shuttle was supposed to serve the International Space Station, and any further delays could not be tolerated. Third, the team of engineers made the decision not to present uncertainties in their analysis of the Mission Management team.
The fourth reason was linked to Mission Management Team Chair Linda Ham’s assurance that nothing else could be done and that the problem did not demand additional attention. The fifth reason was the unwillingness to seek outside support to address all the concerns. Finally, the engineers’ eventual decision to forget the problem, allowing themselves to be persuaded that the problem was not as crucial as some of them expected it to be, led directly to the eventual disaster.
As can be seen, various types of unethical behavior and even violations of safety concerns eventually led to the disaster and deaths of the astronauts.
The Lack of Time
Since no delays were acceptable, the ground control team and the Mission Management team worked hard to start and end the mission on time. Without a further investigation into and assessment of the debris’ impact on the shuttle, the Chair of the Management Team decided to continue the mission because NASA could not reverse the course. Furthermore, the success of the mission was important for the career success of the Chair, and that also influenced the outcome.
The unethical behavior here was the team’s decision that time was more important than risk assessment. Although the team did understand that, potentially, astronauts’ lives were in danger, they valued punctuality and alignment with the mission’s timing as more important. Essentially, NASA should not have launched the shuttle before assessing all the previous debris-related issues, but this was not considered to be an option.
The Crater Report
Mission management was not aware of how important the problem was and decided not to hold meetings over the national holiday to assess the problem. If a meeting had been held, it might have been possible for the managers and engineers to come to another conclusion and raise awareness of the danger the debris presented to the shuttle. At the same time, the Debris Assessment Team and the Boeing engineers used the Crater model to evaluate the depth of penetration. Although the report showed that the panels could continue to function, the engineers were aware that this model was designed to evaluate much smaller debris compared to the present hazard. When the engineers provided the report, they did not mention this fact to the Mission Management Team.
If they had, the team could have asked them to find a new tool or to reevaluate the debris’ penetration to ensure that no harm would be done. The engineers’ unethical behavior here was the unwillingness or inability to evaluate the problem appropriately, which was one of the main duties that they failed to perform.
Ham’s reluctance to reevaluate the safety concerns linked to the debris was directly influenced by her aim to follow the timeline of the mission and her belief that nothing could be done about the damage. As the Chair, she had to understand that safety concerns in this mission were primary and the schedule was secondary. However, not only did she decide to stop the investigation of the problem but she (along with everybody from the management team) was also sure that there was no need to notify the astronauts about the risks and possible outcomes.
The fact that the crew of the shuttle remained unaware of the risk was one of the most unethical decisions made by the ground control team since the crew had the right to understand the dangers they were facing. Nevertheless, Ham made no further investigation of the problem and even interfered with the investigation that did take place.
Another unethical behavior was Ham’s unwillingness to receive outside help and support (namely, the Kennedy Space Center’s imaging) that was requested (without her consent) by another NASA employee, Wayne Hale. Although it is hard to call Hale’s decision ethical, too, Ham’s interference involving the potential help the Kennedy Space Center could provide resulted in a poor investigation of the damage posed to the shuttle.
She stated that the costs in positioning the shuttle for imaging were too high, and it would be difficult to do this, as well. Thus, Ham repeatedly undermined the concerns expressed by other employees, because she believed that the problem could not be solved. However, the help of the Kennedy Space Center could have had a better impact on the eventual outcome of the mission. The images provided by the Center could have provided the engineers with more detailed data and might have helped them to clarify the danger posed to the shuttle and the crew. Nevertheless, the Management Team decided to stop the investigation and not to alert the commander of the crew.
The situation was worsened because those parties who had the potential to influence events and decisions decided not to discuss the issue anymore and let themselves believe that the danger posed by the debris was not too critical. Rodney Rocha, the Chair of the Debris Assessment Team, felt indignation, at first, because he believed the issue was not adequately addressed. He even tried to persuade his other colleagues that the risk was much higher than the Management Team acknowledged it to be.
However, the managers concluded that the shuttle would only experience landing difficulties. Rocha eventually gave up and accepted the opinion of the Management Team. However, if he had decided to persist with his concerns about the mission, he could have changed the outcome or at least could have persuaded the Management Team to notify the commander about the danger posed by the damage. Rocha had many potential options here, such as to continue investigation himself, try to persuade ground control to give more information to the crew, ask for additional analysis, or work on the case with his team members. As can be seen, Rocha—possibly without realizing it—chose the easiest decision.
Therefore, he, too, was responsible for the catastrophe, although he should also be respected for trying to change the state of affairs. However, his decision was also unethical since he understood the problem but gave up his efforts as soon as the NASA authorities refused to work on it.
As can be seen from the discussion, many parties, including managers, engineers, and chairpersons, were responsible for the catastrophe. Insufficient leadership, concealed information about uncertainties, time pressure, and employees’ unwillingness to continue the investigation led to a variety of unethical behaviors that disintegrated the shuttle.