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The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA 1st Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0226851761
ISBN-10: 0226851761
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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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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: 6 x 1.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #58,900 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As a sociological explanation of disastrous decision making in high risk applications, this book is without peer, exceeding even Charles Perrow's work by a fair measure. Vaughan, a sociologist, obviously worked very hard at understanding the field joint technology that caused the "Challenger" accident, and even harder at understanding the extremely complex management and decision making processes at NASA and Morton Thiokol.

The book ultimately discards the "amoral calculation" school of thought (which she was preconditioned to believe at the outset of her research by media coverage of the event) and explains how an ever expanding definition of acceptable performance (despite prior joint issues) led to the "normalization of deviance" which allowed the faulty decision to launch to be made. The sociological and cultural analyses are especially enlightening and far surpass the technical material about the actual physical cause of the accident presented.

This is a masterful book, and is impeccably documented. The reference portion of the book in the back is especially useful, in that she reproduces several key original documents pertinent to the investigation which are difficult to obtain elsewhere. My only objection to the book is the extreme use of repetition, which I think needlessly lengthened the book in several areas, and obfuscating sociological terminology like "paradigm obduracy" which not only fails to illuminate the non-sociologists among us, but makes for somewhat tortured prose.

In praise of the book, however, it is a brilliant analysis of how decisions are made in safety-critical programs in large institutions. Chapter ten, "Lessons Learned," is particularly noteworthy in its analysis and recommendations.
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