What Innovations Came from the Shuttle Program ?

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Picture credit: National Air & Space Administration

Unlike the Apollo Space Program, NASA did not perform as well in helping to spread the inventions and innovations in the Space Shuttle Program as the 1986 explosion of the Challenger Shuttle was one of the most widely viewed “fails” of the 20th Century.  IAI decided to revisit the tragedy in light of the passing of the 30th anniversary of the event in January 2016 which largely went unnoticed. With the failure of the external booster rocket seals in the cold morning, a white hot fissure burned though the tank, leading to the dramatic explosion of the LOx fuel. Space Safety Magazine details the magnitude of the disaster on the manned space program:

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was probably the most significant event, in terms of its impact on the US space program, in the history of spaceflight. On the bitter cold morning of January 28th 1986, seven astronauts on-board Space Shuttle Challenger lost their lives in front of family, friends, and millions of TV viewers. The vehicle broke up 73 seconds into the flight, burning nearly 2 million liters of fuel in just a few seconds that created a sinister cloud of gas.

Sadness turned to anger as the American public learned that the disaster was the result of multiple failures of leadership at NASA – and a genuine failure to catalog the true list of circumstances and vulnerabilities that should have triggered a “No-Go”. Luckily, the “Memory Hole” could not be denied as the Los Angeles Times reported that Flight Engineer Allan McDonald and his team warned Houston NASA that a catastrophic failure would result from the unseasonably cold temperatures that Florida morning. At the time of the Challenger explosion, McDonald was director of the space shuttle solid-motor project at Morton Thiokol, a NASA contractor that built rocket boosters

“My heart about sank because I realized this failure really did precipitate from the exact problem we had discussed the night before,” said McDonald in a recent interview. “It was a horrible disaster that should have been avoided.”onald and his team warned that a catastrophic failure of the vehicle would result from the cold temperatures that morning.

The decision to make Chapman the home of the archives came as a result of McDonald and Boisjoly’s decades-long relationship with Mark Maier, director and founding chair of the Challenger used for leadership studies program at Chapman. A few years after the disaster, Maier reached out to both men, seeking collaboration on a training program that would use the Challenger as a case study on leadership.  For Maier, the lessons of the Challenger 30 years later are clear: Not only must individuals speak the truth no matter the consequences, but bosses must also encourage employees to do so.

“As a manager, are you creating a climate where people are so scared of speaking the truth that they’ll tell you what you want to hear and not what you need to know?” he said, noting that the same leadership failures that doomed the Challenger can be seen in the 2010 BP oil spill, the 2014 General Motors ignition switch scandal and today’s problems with the water supply in Flint, Michigan. If you don’t change the managerial script, the story’s going to keep ending the same way.”

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