The importance of failure theories in assessing crisis management: The Columbia space shuttle disaster revisited

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An adequate assessment of crisis management failure (and success) requires a validated causal theory. Without such a theory, any assessment of crisis management performance amounts to little more than a "just so" story. This is the key argument of this paper, which describes how hindsight biases and selective use of social science theory gave rise to a suggestive and convincing - but not necessarily correct - assessment of NASA's role in the Columbia space shuttle disaster (1 February 2003). The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) identified NASA's organizational culture and safety system as a primary source of failure. The CAIB report reads as a stunning indictment of organizational incompetence: the organization that thrilled the world with the Apollo project had "lost" its safety culture and failed to prevent a preventable disaster. This paper examines the CAIB findings in light of the two dominant theoretical schools that address organizational disasters (normal accident and high reliability theory). It revisits the Columbia shuttle disaster and concludes that the CAIB findings do not sit well with the insights of these schools." The Board believes that the Shuttle Program should have been able to detect the foam trend and more fully appreciate the danger it represented" (CAIB, 2003:189-190)." So today, we may be not willing to take any risk, but in that case, you can't fly because there is always going to be risk [...] You have got to expect that you are going to have failures in the future" (George Mueller, cited in Logsdon, 1999:26). © 2011 Policy and Society Associates (APSS).




Boin, A., & Fishbacher-Smith, D. (2011). The importance of failure theories in assessing crisis management: The Columbia space shuttle disaster revisited. Policy and Society, 30(2), 77–87.

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