Discussion Essay

The Columbia Disaster

On re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, Columbia broke up. It was the first Space Shuttle disaster for the US and its National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) since the 1986 Challenger disaster. As the short case study (see assigned readings) indicates, the cause of the Columbia event was both technical causes as well as organizational culture causes. In no particular order, some of these organizational culture causes/influences included:

  1. Fragmentation of external forces on NASA.
  2. Difficulty of balancing external pressures with public pressures from the White House (demanding accountability) with the US Congress (demanding responsiveness).
  3. Prior post-Challenger (1986) reforms had been abandoned.
  4. Some of those reforms, such as “faster, better, cheaper” and efficiency-first have costs when it comes to effectiveness.
  5. Staff cut-backs and increased “contracting out”.
  6. Decentralization of authority back to the ways that preceded the Challenger disaster.
  7. NASA’s ability to meet launch deadlines influenced future NASA funding for human space-flight. Deadline prioritization took over as the Shuttle program was over-budget and delayed.
  8. Seemingly “simple” determination of whether something as an “in-flight anomaly” or something more significant political and financial implications.
  9. Disconnect between technical assessment about safety issues and upper-level management characterizations about such safety issues.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In your view, what does this case study indicate about the importance of organizational culture?
  2. In your view, what does this case study indicate about the difficulty faced by public sector management among deadlines, differing cultures (engineers versus managers), multiple external pressure, insufficient financial resources, and difficulty of public sector reform?


  1. Obama state of the union address on Jan,17,2010

Critique – include quote from the speech

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