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The Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster: NASA’s Greatest Mistakes Explained

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sciences
Wordcount: 1336 words Published: 18th May 2020

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The Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster: NASA’s Greatest Mistakes Explained


 On February 1st, 2003, a space shuttle launched by NASA and named ‘Columbia’ has exploded in space on the way back to Florida at 9:10 am (Kauffman, 2005). The technical cause of this terrifying explosion is that a dislodged chuck of foam has stuck the left wing of the shuttle and destroyed its heat shields (Mason, 2004). About seven space crew members have mournfully died during the explosion. The Columbia space shuttle that was built costs two billion dollars to make before it was launched into space (Mason, 2004). Besides the technical cause, there are some other big mistakes that NASA has make in regards to engineering communication. This paper will explain some of the greatest mistakes that NASA has made when it comes to communication. The research question that we need to keep in mind while reading is: What lead to the explosion of Columbia? There are three major causes that lead to the horrifying explosion of the Columbia space shuttle: NASA’s history, their culture, and a breach in ethics.

NASA’s History Revisited

The first major cause that lead to the fatal explosion of the Columbia space shuttle is that there were some problems in communication at NASA that have happened in the past. One reason why this happened is because they did not learn from their past experiences in assisting aerospace failures. According to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), they recalled that the explosion of the Columbia has similar root causes compared to the Challenger accident (Boin & Fishbacher-Smith, 2011). NASA did not respond to the explosion of Challenger when they did not realize that it cannot withstand the freezing temperatures during the space launch (Dombrowski, 2007). Another reason is because NASA did not react to the urgent warnings about imminent failure (Boin & Fishbacher-Smith, 2011). NASA was criticized by the Rogers Commission for poor processes in decision-making and the absence of concern for protection from harm (Boin & Fishbacher-Smith, 2011). The last reason is that some decisions regarding priorities were badly made by NASA administration.According to Brigadier General Duane Deal, he observes that NASA has been ignoring recommendations from stakeholders and has ignored safety as a top priority (Dombrowski, 2007). By observing past events, NASA did not refer to the failures that they made due to the lack of communication.

NASA’s Lethal Culture

The second major cause of the Columbia disaster is that NASA’s organizational culture was becoming more lethal after such tragedies. One reason why NASA’s culture is becoming more fatal is because NASA has unclear communication between engineers, technical staff, and the mission management team. There has been a lot of issues with their communication flow between them as it was not direct & clear (Burrell, 2013). The information received was very poor in quality and some of it was lost. In addition, lower-ranking staff were reluctant to speak up because of the fear of saying inaccurate information. Miscommunication was the final result when NASA was unsuccessful in assessing the crisis as they were too late in discovering damage on shuttle (Burrell, 2013). Another reason is because NASA has transitioned to a more productive culture meaning that it focused on “efficiency” which overrides safety (Mason, 2004). According to former astronaut,Sally Ride, she explains that NASA must include ‘safety’ because if it wasn’t considered, then NASA would become ignorant in monitoring shuttle accidents (Mason, 2004, p. 132). One last reason about NASA’s corrupted culture is because they are impacted with cultural hubris: exaggerated pride or self-confidence which then leads to carelessness. The agency celebrated too much success which resulted in failure thus represented a poor image of the organization and a lack of confidence. (Mason, 2004).NASA’s organizational culture has become very dysfunctional to the public as they are becoming irresponsible in communicating with others.

Raising Issues in Ethics

The last major causein which NASA is to be blamed for the disaster is that NASA has breached a few rules regarding to the code of communication ethics. This is because NASA is lacking greatly on following the ethical norms. To illustrate, NASA’s culture didn’t follow the norms of safety, respect, honesty, & fairness. Therefore, the agency made a bad choice by not assessing the safety procedures of the Columbia disaster (Mason, 2004). Another reason why NASA has ignored the code of ethics is because they presented the communication about the actual cause of the disaster poorly to employers and clients. According to Ron Dittemore, who is the space shuttle program manager, he couldn’t make up his mind about the “foam strike being the cause of the disaster” or not. Miscommunication was the result after he failed to show appropriate knowledge about the cause. (Kaffman, 2005, pg. 270). The last reason why NASA ignored the code of ethics is that they were blamed for flawed decision-making. Referring to the Challenger launch, the engineers who are responsible for the O-rings have warned NASA that the O-rings on the space shuttle cannot handle extremely cold temperatures and this may cause them to fail.  Unfortunately, NASA ignored and dismissed their warning and the end result was that the space shuttle Challenger became disintegrated (Boin & Fishbacher-Smith, 2011, pg. 78). NASA was unable to listen and deal the engineers’ concerns when they tried to warn them about a serious problem (Boin & Fishbacher-Smith, 2011). As you can see,NASA has failed again by not following up the code of ethics that every organization must follow.


To conclude, those three greatest mistakes made by NASA has generated a lot serious problems. By not learning from their mistakes from the past, they will always keep repeating them over and over again. by reviewing carefully at those major causes of the Columbia space shuttle disaster, NASA should consider learning from their past lessons regarding to causing some miscommunications, reconstruct their organizational culture by creating more effective solutions to deduce the chance of future accidents and make the organization more independent in handling crises and also understand the importance of following the code of ethics carefully.


  • Boin, A., & Fishbacher-Smith, D. (2011). The Importance of Failure Theories in Assessing Crisis Management: The Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster Revisited. SSRN Electronic Journal30(2), 77–87. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2198381
  • Burrell, W. D. (2013). Create an Effective Communications Culture – Encourage People to Speak Up. Corrections Managers’ Report19(1), 1–15.
  • Dombrowski, P. M. (2007). The Evolving Face of Ethics in Technical and Professional Communication: Challenger to Columbia. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication50(4), 306–319. doi: 10.1109/tpc.2007.908729
  • Kauffman, J. (2005). Lost in space: A critique of NASAs crisis communications in the Columbia disaster. Public Relations Review31(2), 263–275. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2005.02.013
  • Mason, R. O. (2004). Lessons in Organizational Ethics from the Columbia Disaster: Organizational Dynamics33(2), 128–142. doi: 10.1016/j.orgdyn.2004.01.002


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