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. Saving Changes...
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. Saving Changes...