It was a subject she hoped she would never have to revisit.

But last week, in the wake of the Columbia space shuttle disaster, Prof. Diane Vaughan (Sociology) once again found herself offering her expertise to the media on the organizational shortcomings of NASA.

Vaughan is the author of The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture and Deviance at NASA, the result of nine years of research on the 1986 tragedy that gripped the nation. Vaughan's book was an indictment of NASA: The agency's process for making high-risk decisions, she said, created a structure in which conformity to the rules overshadowed concern and caution.

While the cause of the Columbia disaster is still under investigation, Vaughan says there are indications that NASA did not learn enough lessons from the Challenger disaster.

"When an organization makes a mistake, it will initially put a lot of focus on the factors that contributed to it," said Vaughan, who has been interviewed by the New York Times, St. Petersburg Times, Washington Post, Newsday, Reuters, Salon.com, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Fox News and the syndicated radio show "First Person Plural," among others.

"But the momentum of reaching goals gradually decreases the organization's sensitivity to persistent problems. If you're a hands-on operator who deals with these kind of issues on a day to day basis, your view would be quite different than officials at higher levels who tend to be immersed in agency politics."

She cites, for example, NASA's decision to continue shuttle flights in spite of ongoing problems with heat tiles breaking off the space shuttle on re-entry.

"It's become normal to them that they will have a loss of tiles. The same thought process happened with the O-rings on Challenger. So, rather than becoming a signal of potential danger, something like this becomes part of what NASA defines simply as an operating system. They lost sight of the fact that shuttle technology is still complicated and experimental."

One thing NASA did get right this time around, says Vaughan, was designating the shuttle program's director, Ron Dittemore, as its spokesman. "In the case of the Challenger, NASA was so blind to the possibility of a disaster that they had no contingency plan to deal with the public and the media.

"But this past week, they had someone who became the public face of the agency, who could be frank about grief and loss, and willing to take every manner of question hour after hour."

-Sean Smith


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