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The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA Paperback – April 15, 1997

ISBN-13: 978-0226851761 ISBN-10: 0226851761 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (April 15, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226851761
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226851761
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 5.9 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #352,154 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 is usually ascribed to NASA's decision to accept a safety risk to meet a launch schedule. Vaughan, a professor of sociology at Boston College, argues instead that the disaster's roots are to be found in the nature of institutional life. Organizations develop cultural beliefs that shape action and outcome, she notes. NASA's institutional history and group dynamics reflected a perception of competition for scarce resources, which fostered a structure that accepted risk-taking and corner-cutting as norms that shaped decision-making. Small, seemingly harmless modifications to technical and procedural standards collectively propelled the space agency toward disaster even though no specific rules were broken. While Vaughan's complex presentation will daunt general readers, her conclusion that the "normalization of deviance" builds error into all human systems is as compelling as it is pessimistic.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Scientific American

Vaughan gives us a rare view into the working level realities of NASA. . . . the cumulative force of her argument and evidence is compelling.

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Customer Reviews

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This book makes for very weighty and difficult reading.
Robert I. Hedges
For project and risk managers, this book offers a rare warning of the hazards of working in structured and institutionalized environments.
Craig L. Howe
It is one of those books that will really change the way you look at things.
718 Session

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Kenneth P. Bloch on August 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I started reading this book to improve my Root Cause Failure Analysis skills after hearing that it covers, in fine detail, a failure that cost the lives of 7 astronauts and destroyed a multi-billion dollar asset. We are first presented with the popular media viewpoint that describes how performance-driven NASA administrators aggressively pursued production, political, and economic goals at the expense of personal safety. How a mechanical flaw formally designated as a potentially catastrophic anomaly by NASA and Thiokol engineers became a normal flight risk on the basis of previous good launches. How a last minute plea from subject matter experts to halt the countdown on an uncommonly cold day in January 1986 was ignored by engineering managers on the decision chain so the launch schedule would not be compromised.
I remember an early feeling of relief in knowing that while similar performance, production, and scheduling pressures exist in my career, the attitudes that were mostly at fault for the Challenger incident are absent from my refinery and violate all 10 of my parent company's business principles starting with #1 (conduct all business lawfully and with integrity).
The author then proceeds to shatter every element of this popular emotional impression by presenting a credible account of the failure based on public record. This is an important point because unlike with Enron's collapse, there is no shredding of pertinent documents behind the Challenger incident. And it is this matter of public record that can benefit anyone having reliability or production engineering responsibilities within a refinery. Here we find evidence that NASA's best friend - a reliable system built to assure the utmost safety in engineering - was to blame for the tragedy.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By GST on February 29, 2004
Format: Paperback
Penetrating account of the organizational causes of the Challenger disaster. The author shows that the engineering mistake that led to the disaster was not the result of intentional wrongdoing ("amoral calculator" thesis = managers overruling engineers due to economic and/or political pressures) but that quite on the contrary that the NASA and contractor teams played by the rulebook to a fault and that the mistake was "systematic and socially organized". A must read for everybody interested in organizational dynamics or in how to manage risk in the development of technological innovations.
Given the fascinating subject matter and revisionist thesis it's a pity that the writing is very uneven. Most of the "thick description" of the decisions around the booster joint from the early design days to the post-mortem by the Presidential Commission is quite readable. This core of the text, however, is embedded in an unbearably repetitive and plodding overall narrative flow (the account could probably be reduced in length by 50%) which in places degenerates into (sociological?) opaque language. Taking a cue from the author's concept of "structural secrecy" (things are hidden not on purpose but due to organizational compartmentalization), the argument of the book loses a lot of its force due to the undisciplined way of telling it; the author could profit from a strong editor.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By oldcontractor on May 15, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Who would have thought that the most cognizant explanation of the Challenger accident would be written from an industrial psychology perspective? I've worked for NASA contractors for 24 years and have dealt with all of the types of various reviews and "overhead chart" engineering and management discussions and telecons she studied. I read this book when it first came out and have referred others to it as one of the best texts on management, technical decision making, and quality assurance that I can think of. Years of education led me to think that I was a "professional" but, as Ms Vaughn so eloquently demonstrates, there is no real aerospace engineering profession in the context of the NASA/Industry partnership.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Jim Kirk on January 29, 2001
Format: Paperback
I purchased this book after reading the first chapter in the bookstore. I was very interested in the technical details behind the loss of STS-51L aka the Challenger Disaster. After a brief period of discussion of the specifics of the accident, Vaughn delves incredibly deeply into the culture of NASA and the management culture that in some ways directly led to the loss of the vehicle and her crew.
The amount of info Vaughn is able to bring up is incredible, and she must have done hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews to compile all of her data. I was amazed at how freely some people were with their comments (given the subject matter) and here reconstruction of events in fantastic in it's detail.
This is not a book to be read lightly. It is an in-depth social analysis more than it is a book about the Challenger Disaster. Of note, it was shelved under sociology (and not Science/Technical) at my local bookstore. Many people who live in cultures where high-risk decisions are made(doctors, law enforcement personell, etc) would benefit from this work.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Craig L. Howe on June 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986. To millions of viewers, it is a moment they will never forget.
Official inquiries into the accident placed the blame with a "frozen, brittle O ring." In this book, Diane Vaughan, a Boston College Professor of Sociology, does not stop there. In what I think is a brilliant piece of research, she traces the threads of the disaster's roots to fabric of NASA's institutional life and culture.
NASA saw itself competing for scarce resources. This fostered a culture that accepted risk-taking and corner-cutting as norms that shaped decision-making. Small, seemingly harmless modifications to technical and procedural standards propelled the space agency toward the disaster. No specific rules were broken, yet well-intentioned people produced great harm.
Vaughan often resorts to an academic writing style, yet there is no confusion about its conclusion.
"The explanation of the Challenger launch is a story of how people who worked together developed patterns that blinded them to the consequences of their actions," wrote Dr. Vaughan.
"It is not only about the development of norms but about the incremental expansion of normative boundaries: how small changes--new behaviors that were slight deviations from the normal course of events- gradually became the norm, providing a basis for accepting additional deviance. Nor rules were violated; there was no intent to do harm. Yet harm was done. Astronauts died."
For project and risk managers, this book offers a rare warning of the hazards of working in structured and institutionalized environments.
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