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The Challenger Tragedy

The NASA Challenger space shuttle calamity in 1986 dramatizes several barriers to successful implementation, which can move otherwise prudent decisions into the zone of unacceptable risk. [*]

[*] Reference sources consulted for background concerning the Challenger case include: P. M. Boffey, ”Analyst Who Gave Shuttle Warning Faults ’Gung-Ho, Can-Do’ Attitude,” New York Times, February 14, 1986; Boffey, “Shuttle Officials Deny Pressuring Rocket Engineers,” New York Times, February 27, 1986; D. E. Sanger, “Communication Channels at NASA: Warnings That Faded Along the Line,” New York Times, February 28, 1986; J. J. and S. B. Trento, “Why Challenger Was Doomed,” Los Angeles Times, January 18, 1987; T. E. Bell and K. Esch, “The Fatal Flaw in Flight 51L,” IEEE Spectrum, February 1988, 36–51.

This case study does not simply concern government bureaucracies. The same strategic and interpersonal issues that preceded the Challenger launch also punctuate everyday events. How hard should you push a rush project? How should you deal with conflicting views and interests when unforeseen circumstances arise? When should you urge your manager to reverse a directive? How should you respond when upper management asks you to put a “spin” on the truth?


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