Researchers study shuttle explosions to explain why organizations repeat mistakes

Janelle Polcyn

Just 82 seconds after it left the ground, a suitcase-sized piece of foam from the Columbia shuttle’s main fuel tank broke off, damaging its wing and heat shield. The accident ultimately led to the death of all seven crew members — but could have been corrected if scientists had paid attention to a similar accident 17 years earlier.  

Management associate professor Francisco Polidoro and two associates, David Chandler and Pam Haunschild, published research on why organizations repeat large mistakes in the January issue of Organization Science magazine. The research focused on the explosions of NASA space shuttles — the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003 — because of human error. 

“The trigger for this study is the observation that organizations do indeed repeat big mistakes,” Polidoro said. “The Challenger and Columbia are very salient examples of that, given the magnitude of these tragic explosions. Not only were they preventable, but they were preventable for similar reasons.”

Polidoro and his team researched data documented by NASA and found firms strive for balance between safety and innovation, and mistakes occur when they focus too much on innovation. The team also tested data from BP oil spills and pharmaceutical drug errors. 

Challenger failed because NASA launched the shuttle prematurely, due to external pressure, aerospace engineering senior Justin Paul said. Decades later, Columbia failed when NASA neglected to make meticulous safety checks.

“At least from what I know, [NASA] knew more about the Challenger and why it was going to fail than they did about the Columbia,” Paul said. “This was a really hard decision to make because the modeling that they did for assessing the damage on the shuttle was a lot more difficult.”

Polidoro said there are several internal and external pressures that lead to the repeating of mistakes, such as changes in organization structure.

“Because of structure changes, communication channels change as well, and again, an organization can lose a memory even if the knowledge remains in individuals within that organization,” Polidoro said.

The McCombs School of Business issued a press release on Jan. 27 about the publication of the team’s work.

Companies become complacent when successes make them relax their safety standards, Polidoro said.

“One of the ironies is the very effort to correct the problem and avoid future occurrences of similar problems can leave a false sense of security,” Polidoro said. “This may inadvertently suggest that we can relax that focus on safety.”