Thirty years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds into its flight, taking the lives of all seven astronauts, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe. As with most tragic events that affect an entire nation, I remember where I was when I learned of the disaster. I was just returning home from a morning class during my undergraduate days at Michigan State University. My roommate and I watched the network news bulletins in utter disbelief.
The investigation following the disaster concluded that the cause of the explosion was a failure in an O-ring component of the solid fuel rocket boosters which allowed hot gas to escape and ignite the shuttle’s external fuel tank. The O-rings had a design flaw which had long before been deemed to be acceptable and several previous successful shuttle launches seemed to support that conclusion. However, the O-ring design flaw presented greater risk at colder temperatures. On the morning of January 28, 1986, the Florida temperature was a mere 36 degrees Fahrenheit. In the days following the disaster, we learned that there were engineers who had cautioned that the O-rings may not properly seal at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit, but such cautions were either ignored or were not effectively communicated.
Much has been written regarding this disaster and its obvious risk management failings over the last 30 years. There have been alternative theories, talk of conspiracies and cover-ups, and frankly some pretty wacky stuff. I can’t help but wonder if this disaster might have been averted had their been more of an enterprise-wide risk management process in place. Don’t get me wrong… NASA and all of the contractors involved in the space program for the last 50+ years have always taken the significant risks of space travel very seriously, and have had many processes and checklists in place to ensure that no step was missed and no procedure left undocumented. The ingenuity and dedication to astronaut safety was on full display in the case of Apollo 13. That NASA mission also endured a catastrophic explosion, but with a much happier ending.
The fact is, bad things will happen. The entire profession of risk management and the insurance industry that serves us exist only because there is risk in everything that we do. We need to be prepared to identify and control these risks, and finance the economic impact of the risks that slip past us. Enterprise risk management is a relatively recent approach and evolution from the traditional risk management approach where risk and risk control existed within organizational silos. ERM addresses risk more holistically and bridges across those organizational silos. I am no expert on the Challenger disaster and the investigation, but it seems to me that there is a fair amount of evidence that the launch decision on that cold Florida morning 30 years ago was made without the benefit of sufficient risk information from across the NASA enterprise. And if that is true, what a shame that enterprise risk management couldn’t have evolved a few decades earlier.