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  Lost in Space: What Happens When The Rocket Scientists Mess Up

by Cliff Kurtzman
Chief Executive Officer, ADASTRO Incorporated.

September 10, 2003

"When it's dark, the stars come out... The same is true with people. When the tragedies of life turn a bright day into a frightening night, God's stars come out and these stars are families who say although we grieve deeply as do the families of Apollo 1 and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on. These stars are the leaders in Government and in NASA who will not let the vision die. These stars are the next generation of astronauts, who like the prophets of old said, 'Here am I, send me.'"

-- Brig. Gen. Charles Baldwin, STS-107 Memorial Ceremony at the National Cathedral, February 6, 2003.

I know that, deep within, so many of us share the brave spirit to venture out. We long to know the secrets of the universe. The spirit hungers within ungratified, with a deep longing for adventure and to find the key to unlock the path to worlds yet unknown.

As we look back on the anniversary of Lewis and Clark, we marvel at the spirit of adventure that compelled them to explore the unknown. We are lulled into thinking that contemporary explorers are safe, that they don't risk their lives to know the great beyond. But that illusion was shattered this past February 1, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over the skies of Texas.


Part One of the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, released this past month, begins with the sentence "Building rockets is hard." This is most assuredly a true statement.

Creating and operating a space program involves the need for an incredible degree of innovation and creativity, along with a requirement to establish and follow complex processes that allow execution of the mission while minimizing chances for failure. On February 1, 2003, the failure by NASA to employ sound process over a long period of time at both the organizational and programmatic levels resulted in the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the lives of Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon.

A basic premise behind ADASTRO is embodied in our motto "Business IS Rocket Science" and our belief that building a successful and profitable business in today's competitive economy requires innovation and process not too unlike that employed by the rocket scientists. But it remains important to remember that sometimes even the rocket scientists make mistakes. It is my hope that looking at how the rocket scientists deal with failure, and the lessons they learn from it, will offer Apogee readers valuable lessons that they can apply to their businesses.

When something goes significantly wrong for a rocket scientist, the first thing that they do is work to deal with the situation from an operational perspective to achieve the best feasible outcome. The next step is to conduct an investigation. In the case of the Columbia tragedy, where it very quickly became clear that a complete loss of mission had occurred and there was nothing further that could be done to help the crew, the next step was to lock the doors and secure the data. This was followed just minutes later by the initiation of the process that led to the creation of the Investigation Board.

The same basic principles can apply to many business situations in which one encounters a failure--you archive the data so that no information is lost, and then you investigate the situation to understand both immediate and root causes. The objective is not to find someone to blame--it is to understand what really happened (which very often turns out to be different than what appeared to happen), to turn the failure into an opportunity for learning, to improve your organization and its practices, and to realize value from the experience.

The investigation may be done in-house for more routine business matters, while the most serious situations (such as ones which might involve a loss of life, or legal proceedings) may require an investigation by external and independent experts. Obviously, the process is very different when investigating why a marketing campaign failed as compared to investigating an industrial accident, but in either case a process designed to realize value from the failure can and should be designed along the lines described above.


The report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board found a physical cause for the loss of the Columbia to be a breach in the Thermal Protection System on the leading edge of the Shuttle's left wing, caused by a piece of insulating foam which separated from the External Tank during liftoff and struck the wing. During re-entry of the Shuttle, this breach allowed superheated air to melt the structure of the wing, eventually resulting in a loss of control, failure of the wing, breakup of the Orbiter, and death of the crew.

The Investigation Board went much deeper than looking just at the physical causes of the failure--they also looked at organizational and cultural issues at NASA that had allowed a serious situation to occur that caused loss of life, and at the way in which the seriousness of the issue went unrecognized by senior management even after warning signs were recognized during previous missions and as well as during the flight of Columbia itself.

What the board found was not pretty--significant cultural issues at NASA allowed safety to be compromised. The Investigation Board explained that "Organizational culture refers to the basic values, norms, beliefs, and practices that characterize the functioning of a particular institution. At the most basic level, organizational culture defines the assumptions that employees make as they carry out their work; it defines 'the way we do things here.' An organization's culture is a powerful force that persists through reorganizations and the departure of key personnel."

Many of the cultural problems at NASA were deemed to be the inevitable results of 1) an attitude of arrogance from senior NASA management that discouraged action on many safety concerns, along with denial that a safety situation existed; 2) a lack of vision, direction, and mandate from the last four presidential administrations; and 3) a congress that underfunded complex projects, earmarked funds based on geographic location of the expenditure and for unwanted special interest projects, changed priorities based on political rather than scientific motivations, and is indifferent unless something goes wrong. These are the very same factors that motivated me to leave the aerospace industry ten years ago... today the situation has clearly deteriorated even further.

While I have not been a practicing astronautical engineer for the last decade, my past relationships have continued to bring me close ties to NASA and the Columbia mission. Former Secretary of the Air Force Dr. Shiela Widnall, who was a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, is a professor in the department at M.I.T. from which I received my doctorate. One of my classmates from my doctoral program, Dr. Dan Heimerdinger, assisted the Investigation Board and is a co-founder of Valador, Inc., the board's primary contractor to support the investigation. Another classmate, Dr. Paul Ronney, is now a professor at USC and was the principal investigator on one of the experiments that was aboard the Columbia mission (see: Dr. Janice Voss and Dr. Greg Chamitoff, two other former classmates, are astronauts (who were, thankfully, not aboard the final Columbia mission).

Those in congress that control NASA's purse strings seem to be much more intent on finding someone to blame than to figure out how to improve NASA and move forward. If they are really interested in finding someone to blame, they might do best by looking in a mirror, as the way that congress has in the past and continues to deal with NASA is a more serious root cause of NASA's problems than the actions of any specific individual at NASA.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe says that he has read the investigation report and that he "gets it." I have doubts that he truly does, although I do believe he really is trying to "get it." Ultimately, implementing real solutions will be complex, and it will be congressional support, along with NASA's actions, rather than words, that will prove or disprove NASA's ability to make meaningful changes.


I believe it is essential that NASA finds the way to get it right. Not only is NASA's existence critical to answering key questions about the universe and to helping maintain the scientific and engineering leadership of the United States, but it is also important to keep in mind that every dollar that NASA spends is spent on Earth. That investment drives the education and employment of a workforce that has beneficial spinoffs in thousands of directions and which enables the economy of the United States to remain the strongest in the world. Were it not for the experience and education I received in conjunction with NASA, you would not be reading this article now.

NASA has a brand that is associated with the future and technology in a manner unlike any other brand in the world. While that brand may be damaged, it is clearly salvageable. It remains to be seen if the requisite changes at NASA, in Congress, and from the President will occur that are necessary if NASA's mission is to be engaged.

You cannot shape the future unless you truly understand the present from which you are starting. When was the last time your business went through the process of really trying to understand the basic values, norms, beliefs, and practices that characterize its operations? There really is no way to conduct such an assessment from within--it requires someone external and unbiased to the organization to come in and conduct an assessment. Each time I have been involved in such a process, the results were both surprising and extremely valuable.

Business IS Rocket Science. If you work to understand your organization's culture and learn from its mistakes just like a rocket scientist would, you will maximize your opportunities, increase the value of your business, and shape the best possible future for your organization.

The Columbia Seven lit the world with their passion. May the brilliance of their light fill each of our hearts.

Additional Reading

Corporate success stories offer lessons for NASA

The Right Stuff

NASA's culture problems not unique

Inertia and Indecision at NASA

Excerpts from report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board

The Columbia Accident Board Report

The author gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Jane Walker to some of the exposition in this essay.

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