Lessons From NASA Disasters: The Soft Power of Curiosity

Curiosity comes naturally to children…but adults think they already know everything, and lose the soft power skill of being incessantly inquisitive. It may kill cats, but curiosity is essential for a highly innovative and reliable organization—a HIRO—to function well. Two heart-breaking disasters in NASA’s history demonstrate how important it is to constantly stay curious.

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“My entire 6th grade science class was watching it live on television. Teachers were crying, kids were crying… it was awful. A couple of months earlier we had taken a field trip to NASA in Houston. I remember praying for the astronauts and their families. What a nightmare.”

“I was in 6th grade at Hendrick School in Plano, TX. We all wore red, white & blue that day in support of Ms. McAuliffe. We had a combined homeroom, everyone watching the launch live. And then it exploded… most of us understood what happened, but were too stunned to begin to comprehend. Our teachers just stood there in shock, and tears began to form in their eyes. The rest of the day, although we attended our regular classes, it was all anyone was talking about…. Our school was brand-new, and didn’t have a mascot…but just a few short weeks later, our mascot was the Challengers, and our t-shirts were black with a beautiful, silver space shuttle.”

These are the memories 25 years later of children affected by the US space program’s worst and most dramatic disaster—the disintegration of space shuttle Challenger. On a frigid Florida morning, the 28th of January 1986, Challenger soared into the bright blue sky, carrying a crew of seven that included the first civilian teacher chosen to go into space, Christa McAuliffe. This is the live feed that thousands of school children watched:

The Challenger Disaster

73 seconds into the flight, super-heated gas that had been escaping through a faulty seal on one of the solid rocket boosters finally burned through the booster’s bottom attachment to the large external fuel tank, causing it to pivot into and rupture the highly flammable tank. The shuttle Challenger did not actually “blow up” in an explosion at this point, but rather blew apart. Traveling on the back of the external fuel tank at nearly twice the speed of sound and 46,000 feet above the earth, the shuttle was forced sideways into the Mach 2 slipstream, experiencing forces for which it was not designed, and immediately disintegrated. The cabin with the crew remained intact, carried by momentum for another 20,000 feet upward before tumbling and plummeting back to earth. Emergency breathing gear that had been donned, as well as switches thrown in the cockpit, indicate that at least some of the crew were still conscious during the 2 minute and 45 second plunge into the ocean…but the impact at 200 times the force of gravity mercifully ended what must have been a terrifying experience.

Social Studies teacher Christa McAuliffe, with her two childen, parade in her home state of New Hampshire before the fateful flight. The hype of putting a civilian teacher into space, with many schools carrying a live feed, deepened the traumatic impact of the tragedy across the US.  Source.
The crew of STS-51-L: Front row from left, Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair. Back row from left, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judith Resnik. Source.
The space shuttle Challenger launching on its maiden voyage on April 4th, 1983. Source.

The Columbia Disaster

Seventeen years later, another seven astronauts would meet a tragic, though quicker, end. The crew of space shuttle Columbia, returning to earth after a productive two-week mission on 1 February 2003, was unaware that a piece of foam insulation from the external fuel tank had broken off and ripped a rather large hole in the leading edge of their left wing. While they chattered together in anticipation of returning home, the descending vehicle started to hit the atmosphere at over 24 times the speed of sound.  Atmospheric gasses compressed and heated up to extraordinary temperatures—as high as 1,650° C at the leading edge of the wing, which was normally protected from this onslaught by thermal tiles. But because of the puncture in the wing, these gasses, hot enough to melt the interior aluminum structure (aluminum melts at 660° C), entered like a blow torch, burning away the wing from the inside out. Though the crew couldn’t see the wing because of its rearward location, the pilot likely noticed the odd flying behavior of the craft, as the added friction on the left caused the shuttle to want to yaw and roll in unexpected ways. Shortly, some sensors measuring various systems in the left wing would give off warnings—temperatures rising, problems with tire pressures, and finally, loss of hydraulics. Mission personnel on the ground received these indications in real time, and transmitted a message to tell the pilot that they were aware of and evaluating the malfunctions; the pilot’s last transmission was, “Roger, uh, bu-,” followed by radio silence. Even if the wing was still intact at this point, the loss of hydraulic pressure meant that the craft could no longer be controlled, and it catastrophically tumbled out of control and disintegrated. The crew module may have momentarily stayed intact, but depressurization at the extreme altitude (over 200,000 feet) and high g-forces surely incapacitated the crew in a very short time. The gruesome debris trail of spacecraft and body parts scattered over two thousand square miles, from the main area of Texas, into Louisiana and Arkansas, and NASA was once again left with accounting for the loss of a USD 4 billion spacecraft, seven astronaut lives, and the public confidence in space travel.

You can listen to edited audio and various videos of the last seven minutes of Columbia’s re-entry and breakup, along with information on the tragedy, here:

The Columbia crew in orbit from film recovered from wreckage. From left (bottom row): Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick Husband, commander; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From left (top row) are astronauts David Brown, mission specialist; William McCool, pilot; and Michael Anderson, payload commander. 
Credit: NASA/JSC



Weighing 74,843 kg (165,000 lbs), and traveling in orbit at nearly 30 times the speed of sound (just under 8 km every second) the shuttle has tremendous kinetic energy (about 2000 Megawatts, or the power of a large city like Houston, TX) that it must dissipate when descending from orbit. The shuttle converts that energy into heat (just like a car converts energy into brake heat when it stops). Like a blowtorch, the heat penetrated into the damaged left wing as the shuttle descended over the western US, causing the interior indicators to display abnormal conditions and fail, while the heat melted the interior structure of the wing. Source.
The underside of Columbia showing a problem with the left wing and debris coming off during re-entry. The shuttle’s altitude was around 68,000 meters (about 41 miles) and speed of about 23,000 kph (14,300 mph) at 7:57 am local time. The last transmission and loss of electronic signals (indicating vehicle break-up) occurred two and half minutes after this photo was taken by  the  Air Force Research Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base, N. M. Source.

Video snapshots and photographs by ground observers captured the breakup over east Texas. Many people reported the multiple sonic booms as debris slowed down from its hypersonic speeds.

Radar images picked up radar reflections off of the debris trail as the disintegrated shuttle pieces descended over Texas. Source.
The debris trail spread over 3218 square kilometers (2,000 sq. miles), from Texas into Louisiana. Source.
Recovery team members stop to pray over the discovery of human remains. Source.
Debris was collected in a hangar for the accident investigation. 78,760 pieces were available for the investigation, while eventually over 84,000 pieces would be recovered. Source.

The Challenge of Lifting 4,465,000 Pounds in the Air and Technical Causes of the Accidents

Sending humans to do useful work in space is no easy task, both technically and socially. With a full payload, the shuttle, rockets, and fuel weighed 4 million 465 thousand pounds (2,025,290 kgs). Of that total, the fuel, or essentially the energy required to lift itself and send the shuttle into orbit, was twenty times heavier than the shuttle itself. Converting such massive amounts of fuel into controlled, directed energy requires highly sophisticated fuel management and rocket systems operating at tremendous pressures and temperatures. To harness the horsepower required, scientists and engineers devised a complex system of two reusable, solid-fuel “rocket boosters,” which were attached to an expendable external fuel tank. That tank acted as a structural backbone to the whole assembly, as the shuttle vehicle was also attached to it. The tank held super cooled liquid fuel which was fed into the shuttle’s three reusable rocket engines. The complexity of this 5-rocket system holds the key to the technical, proximate cause for both incidents.

The solid rocket boosters were reusable, and were inspected after each use. These pictures show the recovery process. Source.


Unlike a liquid fuel which exits its holding tank and is fed into a combustion chamber to be ignited, solid fuel burns inside its own holding tank, like a sustained fireworks rocket whose fuse has been lit. The fuel burns at 2760° C and 1,000 pounds per square inch—when directed through the rocket nozzle, this is what provides the lift to help get the shuttle off of the ground. But that temperature is also hot enough to melt metal structures, such as those attaching it to the external fuel tank, and must be contained within the booster.

A solid rocket booster burns its fuel inside the container, meaning that the container must control very high pressures and temperatures. Source.

The boosters were 150’ long and 12’ across, and manufactured thousands of miles away from the Florida launch pad in Utah. In order to transport this large structure, they were built in four main sections, each section fit together and sealed with a dual O-ring. These O-rings were designed to be shielded from high heat; however, on 14 of the 24 flights prior to the Challenger disaster, inspection of the returned boosters showed signs that they were being touched by fire or extreme heat. Extremely low temperatures for the Challenger launch caused the lower right O-ring to fail completely—smoke can be seen emanating from the conjunction of the lower segments in launch pictures—allowing those super-heated gasses to burn into the external structure.

These sections of the solid rocket booster already have the propellant fuel and are being assembled in Florida after being shipped from the manufacturer in Utah. Source.
Frigid temperatures (2.2 C / 36 F) on the morning of the Challenger launch were outside of the tested range of the O-rings, causing engineers to recommend delaying the launch. They were overruled by leaders who did not want to accept disruptive information that failed to confirm their preconceived beliefs. Source.
Liftoff copy
Smoke escaping the solid rocket booster captured on camera indicates where the O-ring failed. Source.
Flames coming from the solid rocket booster (SRB) due to the failed O-rings burned into the supporting strut connecting the SRB to the external tank. Source.
The solid rocket booster eventually burned through its attachment to the external fuel tank and caused the shuttle to turn at an angle into the slipstream of over 2,000 kph, exerting forces that caused it to disintegrate and plummet to the earth. Source.

The liquid fuel system had its own challenges, but on the opposite end of the temperature spectrum. Liquid fuel is actually combustible gas, hydrogen and oxygen, super-cooled to get them into their liquid states for storage. The liquid oxygen needs to be held at -183° C and the hydrogen at -253° C. The external tank required insulation both to keep the liquids efficiently cool inside, and to prevent the outside from forming ice, which could endanger the launching vehicle as high-speed projectiles—ice bullets being shot into the shuttle. The insulation was provided in the form of a spray-on foam, as well as pre-formed foam pieces. When the 5 engines were burning for lift-off, they were producing about 12 billion watts of power—about 16 million horsepower! That tremendous force causes severe vibration, which, along with possible improper application of the insulation, contributed to the shedding of foam insulation pieces (and ice) as a fairly regular occurrence on shuttle launches. Several significant strikes had been discovered on at least three missions prior to Columbia’s fateful flight, the most recent of which had not yet been fully evaluated at the time of launch. Engineers reviewing high-resolution video on the day after Columbia’s launch noticed that a significantly large piece of foam, about the size of a briefcase, near the left forward attachment point of the Columbia to the external tank broke off 82 seconds into the flight, and hit the leading edge of the left wing at around 530 mph. Post-accident testing showed that the force of that impact would have been enough to blow a hole as large as 42 by 41 cm through the thermal panels in the wing.

The insulation piece of foam at the upper left attachment point of the shuttle orbiter to the external fuel tank was the likely source of fatal damage to the left wing (lower circle) when it broke off at 82 seconds into the flight. Source.
foam-strike-still-frame copy
This picture, a screen capture from launch video, shows the shattered debris from the foam strike.  Source.
Post-accident testing simulated the exact conditions of the suspected foam strike, indicating that it could have blown a hole in the leading edge of the wing large enough to allow the hot gasses in on re-entry.

NASA’s Organizational Culture–Can Do!…but if you can’t, don’t bother me with disruptive information!

Explaining and fixing the technical problems that brought down the Challenger and the Columbia is easy, compared to addressing the underlying social and organizational contributions to the accidents. NASA’s cultural roots began under Cold War pressure, as the US scrambled to respond to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first satellite. On May 25th, 1961, before a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy boldly announced the race to safely put a man on the moon and bring him back within a decade– technical excellence, discipline, and grit accomplished that goal by 1969. But the renowned success of the Apollo missions led to an overconfidence—NASA leaders began to see the organization as the epitome of human organization, having accomplished mankind’s most tremendous feat.

President John F. Kennedy announcing America’s determination to send a man safely to the moon and back, May 25, 1961. The pressure of performance in the Cold War greatly affected the culture at NASA.  Source.

From the 1972 decision to develop the reusable shuttle, NASA started to become a “culture of production,” stressing efficiency over safety and factory-like production over curiosity and creative problem solving. Every mission success increased confidence and familiarity with the status quo that became harder and harder to change. Several researchers have noted that a division grew between technical-minded engineers and NASA management, which had to contend with the social and political pressures of production—keeping to an ambitious shuttle launch, recovery, and re-launch schedule; responding to budget cuts; and managing time pressure to complete the International Space Station. Engineers who maintained their curiosity and skepticism were less and less tolerated, because they threatened to slow down the production line. Leaders did not want to hear disruptive organizational information. They selectively paid attention to information that confirmed their “can-do” bias. Even after the Challenger fiasco, NASA administrator (1992-2001) Dan Goldin beat out a “Faster, Better, Cheaper” mantra that further suppressed curiosity and reinforced the narrowing of attention to only views compatible with the leadership vision. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board found that “Managers created huge barriers against dissenting opinions by stating preconceived conclusions based on subjective knowledge and experience, rather than solid data.”

50 Years of Exobiology and Astrobiology at NASA
Between 1992 and 2001, NASA administrator Dan Goldin perpetuated the culture of pressure, and division between engineers and management, with a mantra of “Faster, Better, Cheaper.” Source.

In both the Challenger and Columbia accidents, engineers were fully aware of the potential threats to the missions. In fact, engineer Roger Boisjoly, working for the solid rocket booster manufacturer Morton Thiokol in Utah, vehemently objected to a launch decision outside of the O-ring parameters, but was overruled by his superiors who caved in to pressure from NASA. His accident investigation congressional testimony eventually would kill his career in engineering with the company.

Space Shuttle Challenger Commission 1986
Solid Rocket Booster engineer Roger Boisjoly testifying before congress in the aftermath of Challenger. His disagreement on the launch decision that was overruled demonstrates the growing divide in NASA’s culture between engineers and management. Source.

The engineering team that discovered the foam strike on the Columbia launch, called the “Debris Assessment Team,” made three separate requests for imagery to inspect suspected damage. Officials even began the process of coordinating with the US military to see what resources were available to take pictures. NASA leadership (Shuttle Program Managers), however, actively suppressed these requests, considering foam strikes as relatively normal and inconsequential. An email from the flight director on the ground to the shuttle crew informed them that a piece of foam had been seen to impact the left wing, but dismissed the significance by noting that “Experts have reviewed the high speed photography and there is not concern for…tile damage. We have seen this same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry.”

Accident Board Conclusion:  “diminished curiosity”

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board found that the feeling of superiority in NASA’s leadership culture led to “flawed decision making, self-deception, introversion and a diminished curiosity about the world outside the perfect place.” NASA had become “conditioned by success,” so that “the intellectual curiosity and skepticism that a solid safety culture requires was almost entirely absent.”  Patterns had emerged of heat-damaged O-rings, and high-velocity projectile collisions with foam and ice, and yet leadership refused to see those patterns because of a different reality they had constructed in their heads. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the institution charged with a mission of exploring space, pushing mankind’s frontiers, is faulted for lacking curiosity!


Curiosity may kill cats, but it’s a soft power skill essential for highly innovative and reliable organizations, or HIROs. Having a well-developed curiosity means that one is always looking for unexpected changes, unusual patterns, surprising results, and asking why. It means anticipating, rather than just reacting to, problems, looking for solutions. It also means vigilantly seeking opportunities, even in difficult situations.

Curiosity is the opposite to an enemy of clear decision making and leadership known as “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is our human tendency to select mostly that information that reinforces our previously established beliefs or attitudes. Are heat-damaged O-rings an indication of a serious problem? If we are predisposed to think that the space shuttle is operational and safe, with high standards of design, we focus on the information that says it’s a minor glitch that can be gradually corrected. It’s the same type of thinking when learning about pieces of insulation foam separating from the fuel tank and hitting the shuttle—we latch on to the information that confirms that it’s routine and not a threat. The more time and effort that we have invested in a project, and the more expert we feel about a subject, the deeper embedded becomes the bias. Confirmation bias narrows our field of vision, so that we either discount, or simply don’t notice, changes to patterns or things unusual outside of our focus.

The company Merck Group recently did an international “curiosity survey” of over 3000 workers in China, Germany, and the US. The results expose a common cross-cultural crisis of curiosity:

  • 67% of workers felt they had experienced at least one barrier to practicing curiosity in their workplace.
  • 73% of workers felt they experienced at least one barrier to asking more questions at work.
  • Only 20% of workers self-identified as curious.
  • Only 9% of workers felt the organizational culture at their workplace was extremely supportive of curiosity.

Although this is only a single survey, it’s likely that organizations that suppress organizationally disruptive information and curiosity abound across the globe. Curiosity comes naturally to children, but in the adult world of efficient production and increasing expertise, confirmation bias is the psychological norm.

Application: Building Curiosity and Fighting Confirmation Bias

So how do we develop our curiosity and fight confirmation bias?

  1. Change Your Perspective.

From an exercise I learned from psychologist Shawn Achor, I will ask people who I am coaching to draw a picture of a coffee cup. Almost invariably, they draw something like this:


Then, I will draw a simple circle, like this…


…and say, “Here’s my drawing of a coffee cup.” After looks that obviously question my mental stability, I explain that my cup is from a different perspective—from straight below (or above) the cup. Most people have preconceived notions or viewpoints of everyday objects, such as thinking about a coffee cup from a side or oblique angle.You can try this exercise with a team, and see how many are stuck in the one perspective.

A similar exercise is to ask your team to identify what object this is:


Some of them may understand that it’s three different perspectives of a pyramid:


Changing the angle of a camera can give us completely different, surprising perspectives. In the same way, we can consciously change the angles at which we look at events happening around us, or challenges at work. Could the NASA leadership have looked at the O-Ring or foam shedding problems from different perspectives? Could they have taken the astronauts’, or the engineers’ point of view?


  1. Take an Opposite Position

A related, simple way to open up your curious nature and overcome confirmation bias is to sincerely take up and defend a viewpoint opposite to your own. For example, if you have a project that you are passionate about, and would like to get more funding from the Big Boss, sit down and make an argument trying to squash the project. A sincere effort means that you don’t just set up paper tigers and straw men to push over, but dig in to real data that counteracts your own preferences. Conversely, if you are inclined to oppose an idea someone else has brought up, challenge yourself to make their convincing argument for them. NASA leaders could have broken out of their bias by taking the time to seriously construct an opposing argument.

Try building arguments for positions that you would not normally support.
  1. Welcome Respectful and Constructive Dissent

An analysis reviewing over 91 psychology studies, involving more than 8,000 participants, showed that people are more than twice as likely to choose information that confirm their own beliefs than those that disconfirm them. (How many people block or unfollow people that oppose their views on social media?) To develop the soft power skill of curiosity, it’s extremely important to welcome dissenting views. If we in leadership positions surround ourselves with subordinates who always go along, then why bother consulting them? Authors Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, discuss overcoming confirmation bias and the importance of reality testing the assumptions we make before arriving at our decisions. Some organizations create a system or position of the “devil’s advocate,” responsible for taking extremely critical looks at ideas in the organization. They give the example of “murder boards” in the military that look with highly skeptical eyes on proposed operational missions, with significant influence in killing the bad ones. But they note that establishing some formal contrarian system isn’t nearly as important as developing a culture that treats criticism as a “noble function.”

In the ancient kingdom of Israel, the powerful and capable King David had an incident of abusing his power, in which he had sex with the wife of one of his generals, got her pregnant, and then arranged for the general to be killed on the battlefield. One of David’s spiritual advisers, Nathan, came to confront him for his behavior. Although David, with his supreme power in the situation, could have easily ignored or even attacked that advisor, he instead accepted the criticism with great humility and remorse. That is the type of spirit leaders need to encourage with their team of advisors.

At the same time, the Heath brothers point out that we need to guard against an atmosphere in which disagreement descends into unproductive political struggles in the organization. A technique they recommend is to look at all competing options and ask, “What would have to be true for this option to be the right answer?” This helps politically competitive cliques to step back from emotional arguments to a more analytical approach. An honest search for the data or conditions that might convince us that one option is better than another forces us to be curious, to take different positions, and to overcome our bias to favor only information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

The organization in Scott Adam’s Dilbert strip rarely allows dissent. Source.

As the accident investigation board pointed out, NASA had created a culture that did not encourage respectful and constructive dissent. The doors of program managers weren’t always open for team members who had serious concerns about the safety of the mission or crew. Rather than promoting an attitude of curiosity, always seeking new information, looking for new perspectives, and perpetually asking “what if…,” they ignored or suppressed contrary inputs.

Even though curiosity comes naturally to children, who love to endlessly ask questions, it’s easy for that skill to erode as we become more knowledgeable and self-assured that we have all the answers. Curiosity is a soft power skill that takes maintenance and development, both to keep us safe from bad consequences and creative in moving forward. The lesson from NASA teaches us that Highly Innovative and Reliable Organizations, the HIROs, must stay curious, or face disaster.

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.





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