How an Effective Contract and its Enforcement

Could Have Prevented the Challenger Disaster



By Nana Kwabena Osei

SKEMA Business School

Lille, France



Over the years, a lot of investigations and research have been conducted to better understand and highlight the causes of the Challenger Disaster in order to improve space programs as well as put in place measures to prevent such disasters. Extensive rational has been offered as the root cause of the disaster led by NASA as well as independent investigative committees such as the Rogers Commission and the Committee on Science and Technology House of Representatives of the 99th Congress of the United States. The main cause has been rooted in the failure of the primary O-ring on the right Solid Rocket Booster Motor which was as a result of a fundamental faulty design. Other causes have been linked to the poor risk management practices and flaws in the decision-making processes at NASA at the time. However, available reports on the incident have failed to investigate contractual failures during the program, between NASA and their prime-contractors, to address the importance of contracts and their effective management in the success of projects and programs.

This paper utilizes a multi-attribute decision making tool to compare effective contract signing and enforcement with different solutions as recommended by the Rogers Commission, and to determine which of the solutions eliminates the problem through the application of root cause analysis. Based on the results, the paper suggests an effective contract, its enforcement and compliance to all details could have been the key to the prevention of the Challenger Disaster and loss of its crew members.

Key Words: Challenger Disaster, Space Shuttle, NASA, Space Exploration, Project Contract Failure, Decision-making, Root Cause Analysis, Dispute Resolution.


In the 1970’s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was tasked with developing a manned reusable space vehicle for transporting crew and cargo to and from space called the space shuttle.  North American Rockwell was selected on July 26, 1972 to construct the shuttle whiles Morton Thiokol was awarded a $710 million contract to design and build the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) in 1974.

The SRBs are key elements in the operation of a space shuttle as it provides the shuttle with the required thrust to overcome the earth’s gravitational force to reach orbit.

Morton Thiokol’s design was an up-scaled version of the Titan Missile which had been successfully used in previous years with the only major difference being the addition of a secondary O-ring. The O-rings prevented the pressurized combustion gasses from the boosters from escaping by forming an airtight seal. The O-rings were assigned a “Criticality 1”, meaning their failure during launch will result in the destruction of the Orbiter, However, later tests will indicate a potential compromise in design as the O-rings which were designated malfunctioned especially at low temperatures.

Figure 1 Challenger Disaster (Source: www.history.com)

6 days of delay as a result of bad weather conditions and technical issues, the Challenger space shuttle was finally launched on 28th January, 1986, from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Despite several attempts by engineers from Morton Thiokol to boycott the launch insisting that certain components especially the rubber O-rings that sealed the joints of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were vulnerable to failure at low temperatures, the shuttle was given go ahead for launch by NASA managers.


To read entire paper, click here


Editor’s note: Student papers are authored by graduate or undergraduate students based on coursework at accredited universities or training programs.  This paper was prepared as a deliverable for the course “International Contract Management” facilitated by Dr Paul D. Giammalvo of PT Mitratata Citragraha, Jakarta, Indonesia as an Adjunct Professor under contract to SKEMA Business School for the program Master of Science in Project and Programme Management and Business Development.  http://www.skema.edu/programmes/masters-of-science. For more information on this global program (Lille and Paris in France; Belo Horizonte in Brazil), contact Dr Paul Gardiner, Global Programme Director [email protected].

About the Author

Nana Kwabena OSEI

Lille, France

Nana Kwabena Osei
is a Master of Science in Project Management and Business Development candidate at SKEMA Business School, France. He holds a BSc in Petroleum Engineering from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana, with 4 years’ experience in supply chain processes, engineering as well as health and safety practices working in the Oil and Gas industry with Schlumberger Seaco Inc. He has great passion for the project management domain and believes the concept of project performance optimization and its effective integration with engineering principles is the recipe for sustainable success and growth in today’s dynamic and uncertain business environment. He is a certified AgilePM®, PRINCE2® and Green Project Manager who has in the course of his studies been involved in various projects aimed at value creation and improvement of the lives of people in the developing world. Travel is his biggest educator and is fascinated by Space Travel & Exploration.

Contact him on: [email protected] or www.linkedin.com/in/nana-kwabena-osei-92b86654 .