On the cold, crisp morning of January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger launched on a space mission from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA blasting through the sky to get out of earth’s orbit. Seventy-three short seconds later, the shuttle exploded in the air and crashed into the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean below, killing all occupants.
On board the craft were seven crew members, two of whom had caused significant public interest in the flight, Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher and Ronald McNair, one of the first African American astronauts to go to space.
Three years of investigation by the National Aeronautical Space Agency (NASA) concluded that the accident was caused when rubbers seals on the solid rocket boosters shrunk in the pre-launch cold weather thereby allowing hot gases to escape which then ignited the external fuel tanks.
Fun fact: Morton Thiokol, the manufacturers of the rubber seal, had categorically stated that they had never tested the seals in sub-zero temperatures and advised NASA engineers of the same warning that they could not validly attest to the efficacy of the seals in the prevailing temperatures on the launch date.
But many external factors played in the background of the final and fatal launch decision. NASA faced financial and political pressure as the US Congress had demonstrated reluctance to approve more funding in a citizen vote deficient space programme.
There were already existing tensions and communication problems between the engineers at NASA, their external contractors like Morton Thiekol and their higher ups within the NASA chain whose motives on the “go to launch” decision were based on pure institutional survival and commercial instincts.
In essence it was a disaster waiting to happen. Seventeen years later, the institutional tensions had not been resolved, resulting in a second space shuttle, Columbia, disintegrating into pieces on its re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. A piece of foam the size of a suitcase had broken off the external tank of the shuttle 81 seconds after launch from the Kennedy Space Center and is suspected to have created a six to 10 inch hole in the left wing of the shuttle. This hole allowed hot gases to enter the wing during Columbia’s re-entry causing an explosion and the shuttle’s destruction.
In the second shuttle disaster, foam breaking off had become a normalised risk during shuttle launches and NASA ground personnel were well aware of the damage that had occurred during the launch.
The investigation into the accident determined that the Director of Mission Control was quoted as saying, “You know there is nothing we can do about damage to the thermal protection system. If it has been damaged, it’s probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy, successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”
The current situation in many organisations and governments globally, that are grappling with what decisions to make during this pandemic, are very much like the situation in the NASA control room during the two shuttle disasters. Go ahead and relaunch business with all the attendant public health risks in the case of organisations or allow citizens to get seriously sick and die due to their ignorance in not taking precautions by masking up and staying home voluntarily in the case of governments.
The pandemic has brought to fore a diabolical and ethical decision making conundrum that will haunt all of us in many cases because institutional weaknesses that had been swept under the rug have now been laid bare. From poor public health infrastructure to deep seated institutionalised corruption that has made a mockery of government attempts at enforcement initiatives.
From poorly devised supply chain systems that rely on external single sourcing to reliance on a specific, high yielding customer segmentation and singular delivery channels. Our past has caught up with us and our leadership skills over the next eighteen months will largely be premised on our ability to learn from these mistakes and ensure we have sufficient institutional trauma to both study and embed the lessons on what should never happen again.
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