Our View: Lessons from the Challenger disaster

April 20, 2017 11:08:18 AM



It was an lecture delivered by an engineer to a group of engineering students, a two-hour talk filled with technical terms and engineering theories. 


Wednesday evening, at the Union Ballroom on the Mississippi State University campus, Allan McDonald detailed the story of the space shuttle Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986. 


McDonald, who was the man in charge of the rocket boosters whose failure under launch conditions caused the tragedy, tried to warn officials not to proceed with the launch and refused to sign off on it. The launch went ahead anyway, with tragic results -- claiming the lives of seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.  


McDonald exposed an attempt to cover-up the knowledge NASA had been warned before the launch. He was briefly demoted for his role as a whistle-blower, but reinstated to his job by an unprecedented act of Congress. 


McDonald spent two hours explaining the engineering flaws of the boosters, which failed, as he predicted, when launched in cold temperatures. McDonald had noticed a problem in an earlier launch made at 53 degrees. It was 18 degrees on the day of the ill-fated Challenger launch. McDonald's worst fears came true. 


But for those who might be inclined to say, "Sure, it's a great cautionary tale for engineering students, but I'm not an engineer. What does this have to do with me?" 


Plenty, McDonald said. 


For all the mechanical and engineering flaws that may be unique to the tragedy, there were the human flaws that can apply to all walks of life, McDonald said. 


Of particular importance is the climate of communication that exists in the workplace.  


In his example, that climate was the worst sort. Management refused to listen to its own experts, choosing instead to hear only what they wanted to hear. "They kept asking questions until they got the answers they wanted," McDonald said. 


Meanwhile, the engineers were reluctant to vigorously argue their cases. Management had not created a climate where employers felt secure in speaking out and, employees lacked the courage of their convictions. In the end, such an atmosphere limited information that could identify and solve problems before a crisis emerged. This is true in any line of work. 


Too often, priorities are misplaced and other factors -- cost, delays, even egos -- determine the course of action, often with bad, even disastrous consequences. 


McDonald said employers and workers alike should strive for a simple formula.  


Do the right thing for the right reason at the right time with the right people and you'll have no regrets. 


"It's not rocket science," McDonald said.