The Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster in 2003

The Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster in 2003


In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia got into an accident leading to the death of seven crew members. Hours after the accident occurred the government formed a commission, known as The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), to explore into the circumstances that led to the accident. CAIB made an extensive investigation to establish grounds that led to the accident and came up with a comprehensive report. According to the CAIB, the report did not focus on identifying the technical flaw might have led to the accident, but was rather interested in examining the organizational culture of NASA. The board was convinced that the origin of the Shuttle Columbia disaster was beyond technical or mechanical failure. It was a failure of the entire organization. This paper seeks to analyze the data and finding in CAIB report using the Burke-Litwin Model.

The Burke-Litwin Model

The Burke-Litwin model focuses on evaluating a problem by examining the cause and effect relationship of 12 organizational elements (Edward, 2010). The model seeks to bring changes by viewing the organization as a system and establishing the various components that are critical to the optimal functioning of this system. The model assesses an organization and assesses the environmental factors that affect the organization. The 12 organizational elements that makes the focus of Burke-Litwin model include; external environment; mission and strategy; leadership; organizational culture; structure; systems; management practices; work unit climate; tasks and skills; individual values and needs; motivational level, and individual and overall performance.

CAIB Report Findings

  1. The External Environment

The Burke-Litwin model considers the external environment as the most dominant force for triggering organizational change (Edward, 2010). Thus, the model seeks to identify the impact of the external environment of the organization. One of the external environment factors that CAIB has identified as the primary cause of the problem was the lack of strong political objectives. The end of the cold war in the 1980s led to the end of the superpower competition between the US and the USSR.

Consequently, the country lost the urgency to fund NASA projects. CAIB reports that NASA no longer received adequate funding and support from congress and the political administration. Between 1990 and 2000, NASA’s budget went down by 40%.  NASA did not adjust to changes in the political arena, but continued with ambitious space exploration programs. CAIB report concludes that if the nation intends to continue with space exploration, the administration needs to fulfill its responsibility of providing sufficient resources to NASA.

  1. Mission and Strategy

Missions and strategies define the directions of organization (Roy, n.d). NASA mission was to guide the US in its quest to explore the space. One of NASA responsibility was to oversee the development of space programs that are safe. CAIB (2003) report shows how NASA deviated from this responsibility in the wake of changing external environment.

  1. Leadership

Leadership entails guiding the organization’s workforce in achieving the mission of the organization (Smith, 2007). CAIB reports demonstrate leadership shortcoming in NASA. NASA leaders did not respond appropriately to the reduction in the organization budget. They still maintained ambitious plan and tight schedule. The opted for drastic solution such as reducing the workforce in order to sustain the organization’s ambitious plans and schedules.

  1. Organizational Culture

CAIB (2003) has defined organizational culture as “basic values, practices and norms that define an organization’s way of operating”. The report identified that despite making significant changes after the Challengers disaster, NASA’s organizational culture remained the same. Institutional behaviors that led to the Challengers disasters were also observed in the launch of the Shuttle Columbia. These behaviors include; tight schedule, relaxed safety rules and little concerns for deviation from the expected performance.

NASA values were established during the cold war era. The culture is characterized by “can do” attitude, and the view that failure is part of risks involved in operating in space. The success of NASA’s first program, Apollo 11, reinforced this culture. However, NASA culture failed to respond to changes in the external environment that comprised of reduced funding for the organization’s project. The organization continued with the culture of propelling large ambitions. Consequently, NASA became an organization that was trying to do too with too little (CAIB, 2003).

  1. Structure

The reduction of NASA’s budget led to the alteration of NASA’s structure in the effort of increasing efficiency and cutting down the organization’s costs (CAIB, 2003). One area of the organization that was largely affected was the organization workforce. NASA decreased its employees to 2,959 from 4,031 between 1990 and 1995. There was also a shift in the management structure. NASA made Johnson Space Center the designated lead center. The members of the Marshall Space Center, which was Johnson’s competitor, did not take this move positively. Significant NASA operations were also transferred to private contractors.

  1. Systems

The commission investing the Challenger’s accidents faulted NASA’s bureaucratic safety systems. According to CAIB (2003), NASA misinterpreted this finding and moved to eliminate some of the safety systems in order to increase the efficiency of the organization. Although the previous safety system was expensive, it minimized errors my maintaining checks and balances. Eliminating this system was one of NASA’s mistakes that led to the Shuttle Columbia disaster. CAIB recommends the restoration of NASA’s safety systems need to be restored.

  1. Management Practices

Limited financial resources meant that the only way NASA could sustain its ambitious program was by enhancing the efficiency of the organization. NASA reduced its workforce and outsourced some of the shuttle programs activities in order to enhance efficiency. Safety procedures were also overlooked in order to save costs. CAIB reports that NASA used the shuttle, which is developmental vehicle, on space based research

  1. Work Unit Climate

Work unit climate refers to how employees think, act and feel. Work climate is shaped by the organization’s culture and the external environment (Edwards, 2010). The ‘can do’ culture of the organization made the employees resistance to changes within the external environment. The employees resisted management plan to close down some space station despite the budgetary pressure that the organization was facing. External pressure for NASA to cut down cost also led to low organizational commitment. NASA was under a hiring freeze between 1990 and 2000 and reduced its work force by 25%. This affected employees’ perception about the security of their jobs within NASA reading to low satisfaction level, high attrition rates and low levels of organization commitment.

  1. Tasks and Skills

The privatization of some of NASA programs to a private contractor, United Space Alliance, led to a split of responsibilities (CAIB, 2003). This reduced the capability of both organizations to work optimally. There was a suggestion that, in order for the Space Shuttle program to enhance safety, NASA and United Space Alliance skills bases needed to be merged. This suggestion was under consideration when the Shuttle Columbia Disaster took place (CAIB, 2003). This implies that the split of responsibilities between NASA and the private entity may have contributed to the occurrence of the accident by reducing the capability of both organizations to act optimally.  Work force reduction had also been taken too far, leading to a skill imbalance within NASA. Most of the organization’s employees had been laid off, bought out or resigned.

  1. Individual Values and Needs

Individual values and needs refer to the perception of employees concerning their jobs (Edwards, 2010). The Burke-Litwin model considers job satisfaction as an essential element for the success of an organization. Prior to the restructuring of NASA, employees of the organization were proud of their jobs. However, the plan to lay off work demoralized the employees affecting their job satisfaction level.

  1. Motivational Level

As the budget support for NASA continued to decline, there was increased pressure on NASA’s leadership to reduce the organization’s expenditure (CAIB, 2003). Scaling down NASA’s workforce became the most viable option for reducing cost. However, this affected the work environment at NASA. There was significant tension and uncertainty among NASA’s employees. The employees were no longer guaranteed of the security of the jobs. Following the massive downsizing of NASA’s workforce, the remaining employees suffered from increased workload. This affected the safety of the space shuttle program.

  1. Individual and Overall Performance

Declining financial resources affected the individual and overall performance of the organization. The organization reduced its workforce and eliminated some safety systems due to limited resources. This led to deteriorating safety standards and condition of shuttle infrastructure.


CAIB report has noted the impact of the external environment on the operation of NASA. The reduction of funding commitments was the primary cause of most other errors committed by the organization. In order to deal with challenges of declining budget, NASA laid-off its workforce, altered its management structure, and transferred some core responsibilities to private institutions. Though this led to cost efficiency, it resulted to general operational efficiency thus resulting in the accident. On the other hand, NASA was in the wrong for failing to appropriately manage the changes in the external environment. NASA continued with its ambitious spaced program regardless of the inadequacy of resources. The Burke-Litwin model associates this with the organization culture and management practices.


CAIB (2003). “Why Accident Occurred”. November 26, 2012.
Edwards G. (2010). Explaining the Burke-Litwin Change Model. November 26, 2012.
Nisberg N. Hornstein H. & Tichy M. (1976). “Participative organization diagnosis and intervention strategies: Developing emergent pragmatic theories of change”. The Academy of Management Review. 1(2): 109-120.
Roy, D. D. (n.d.). Organizational diagnosis. November 26, 2012. From:
Smith, M. K. (2007). Action Research. November 26, 2012.

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