Home Mind & Brain The ‘Challenger’ Disaster and Pandemic Decision-Making: An Imperfect but Worthy Analogy

The ‘Challenger’ Disaster and Pandemic Decision-Making: An Imperfect but Worthy Analogy

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Life and work seem especially complicated these days. Analogies, even imperfect ones, can help us make big decisions such as those we all face with the pandemic.

Bad decisions with the Challenger

The Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after lift-off, killing seven people. The date was 28 January 1986. The incident holds lessons for how we ‘reopen’ during the pandemic.

Faulty O-rings caused the explosion. For thinking about the pandemic, the essential details are not technical but human. At Morton Thiokol, the contractor, some engineers and managers had worried for years about O-ring defects. After the initial evidence of flaws, decision-makers deemed the risk acceptable, and the boundary of acceptable risk seemed to retreat with every subsequent launch that didn’t fail. 

Over time, with escalating O-ring issues appearing in seven of the nine shuttle launches in 1985, engineers and some managers believed strongly that the O-rings could prove deadly. Further, evidence convinced them that the most severe danger came in cold ambient temperatures at launch time. Engineers began a process of redesign.

As evidence mounted, concerns kept growing. On the morning of the fateful launch, the temperature was below freezing and far lower than at any previous launch. Extensive ice on the launching pad caused serious concern. An Ice Team worked through the night to remove it, and the mission manager in Houston postponed the launch by an hour. The ambient temperature would rise a bit, and the Ice Team could inspect Challenger again before clearing it for launch.

That morning, engineers were terrified, and their managers recommended that NASA – the customer – not launch. But NASA managers were on a tight schedule and in a hurry. They pushed back hard on the Thiokol dissenters, and decided to launch, violating several mission rules. Just 73 seconds after liftoff, the Challenger exploded.

Hard-earned lessons

What lessons does this historic episode hold for the pandemic, despite its different context and details? No matter how confident we are in our decisions, we are rarely as objective and correct as we think.  Decision biases affect almost all the choices we make.

The unfortunate Challenger launch decision – and the failures to correct the problem earlier, as the evidence grew, stemmed mostly from serious decision-making biases to which we all fall prey. To highlight three:

  • Being in a hurry for reasons far less consequential than the risk, in this case death.
  • Believing that because decision-makers took risks and the astronauts survived the previous launches, they would be safe this time too – even though circumstances were far more dangerous. 
  • Knowing that they were working on the problem – redesigning, de-icing, postponing the launch by an hour, knowing and caring – and then thinking they were doing enough to control the risks.

Pandemic decisions, official and personal

In a safe world, top decision-makers and citizens everywhere would heed these lessons. In our world, many do not.

We all value our freedoms and have rights. But when decisions are big and complicated, we need vital information and expert insight. Plus, we can use a different perspective on time. For instance, patience instead of eagerness for nonessential actions. Plus, we can try to be more objective than biased, politically or otherwise.

In the lead-up to the Challenger launch, people made additional mistakes. For a full authoritative account, see The Challenger Launch Decision by Diane Vaughan. For authoritative accounts of the pandemic and the situation in your community, listen to the medical and public health experts and the most thoughtful governors and community leaders. Remember the biases that affect decision-makers and citizens everywhere.

Then, make the best possible choices for you and yours. Despite all we are dealing with, you can make rational decisions by applying just one criterion: safety. Economic security is one type of safety. Living instead of dying – you and others – is the ultimate. All the rest: politics, disinformation, nonessential high-contact interactions, inconveniences, those who refuse to wear masks, etc. is beside the point.


An earlier version of this was published in Medium.


Image credit: Pixabay

Thomas Bateman is Professor Emeritus with the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.


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