Project Management

Project Management Central

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Topics: Aerospace and Defense, Risk Management, Scheduling
35 years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff, killing all 7 aboard, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

Much has been written about the disaster, but perhaps not everyone knows that it was a direct result from a failure in project management.

Engineers at Thiokol, the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters that caused the explosion, had expressed concerns about the integrity of the O-rings for quite some time. The evening before the launch, Thiokol had an emergency teleconference with NASA, where engineers expressed concern that the O-rings would fail due to the cold weather.

The shuttle program had an aggressive schedule for launches and was already behind schedule. Significant pressure was placed on Lawrence Mulloy, the NASA project manager, to get more launches. On the call with Thiokol, Mulloy pushed back on the engineers.
He questioned their data, and even mocked their warnings about the cold weather. "When do you want me to launch, next April??"

NASA later reconvened with Thiokol executives, without the engineers, and management finally conceded that they had incomplete data to prove that the O-rings would fail. The launch proceeded hours later, and the world watched the shuttle explode on live TV.

Like most great disasters, the Challenger explosion was a result of a team effort making bad decisions. But a fatal error was made when the schedule was given priority over all other factors. It's a humbling thought for any project manager that's been pressured to ignore their team.
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Wade -

Thanks for reminding us of the important lessons in this tragedy. I remember being in college watching it unfold live on the TVs in front of us.

The Challenger disaster is an unfortunate case study in what happens when there isn't a culture of psychological safety in place.

I'm not convinced that this is an example of project management failure. The risk was identified, the potential consequences (impact) known and a decision taken to accept the risk.

We will probably never see the risk anaylisis but I would guess the 'probability of occurance' was understated or not adequately expressed. "Expressing concerns..." may not have been as strong as it should have been.

Management made the decision to accept the risk and it turned out badly. This happens every day in project delivery but the impact is usually much less.

I think the people failed, not the process.
I agree with Peter's point of view. Project timelines did slip, and this can be linked to poor project management. However, this cannot be singled out as the main root cause of Challenger explosion.

Ultimately, a poor decision was taken regardless of the concerns expressed by SMEs and other knowledgebale parties. And poor decisions tend to lead to even grimmer outcomes.

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One man can be a crucial ingredient on a team, but one man cannot make a team.

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