Was Masculinity to Blame for the Space Shuttle Challenger?

Most of my knowledge about NASA, astronauts, and outer-space comes from movies.  When I think of the abstract astronaut in my mind, I picture Tom Hanks in Apollo 13.  I was actually only 4 years old when the Challenger disaster happened, but I remember learning about it in high school.  Thanks to the Challenger, we all know – or think we know – something about “O-rings” and how important they are for space travel.

For the uninitiated, here are the facts:

On January 28, 1986, NASA launched the Space Shuttle Challenger for the last time.  One minute and 13 seconds into the flight the shuttle broke apart, and the pieces of the shuttle spread out over the Atlantic Ocean.  Where the crew of the shuttle were was eventually recovered from the bottom of the ocean, but all seven crew members were killed in the crash.  What happened was the subject of intense debate, legal action, and investigation.  What is known is that the O-rings failed.  At a very basic level, O-rings are a part of the shuttle designed to seal the shuttle from the outside.  They have to be flexible and able to withstand intense temperature changes.  It is now known that the O-rings failed to seal the Challenger Shuttle and as a result, pressurized hot gas reached the external fuel tanks and led to the explosion.

James Messerschmidt – a criminologist and scholar of masculinity – investigated this debate and wrote a fascinating article on NASA as a workplace.  Much of the literature on gender in the workplace focuses on relations between men and women.  Joan Acker famously argued that it was not only workers that were gendered, but that the workplace itself and the jobs they were claiming were gendered before they got there.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Christine Williams, Patricia Yancey Martin, and more have discussed gender in the workplace.  But the typical conversation addresses relations between men and women.

NASA is a male-dominated workplace.  In this way, Acker might acknowledge NASA as a great depiction of a gendered job.  The interesting thing about Messerschmidt’s analysis is that he discusses gender relations, but not between women and men.  His article is about gender relations between two groups of men at NASA: managers and engineers.  Messerschmidt argues that engineers and managers have different ways of “doing” masculinity at work and that – in the case of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion – these masculinities came into conflict.

The decision to launch was made against the better judgement of the engineers, who all agreed that the O-rings were too much of a risk at that point to continue with the launch.  Messerschmidt argues that masculinity for the engineers was tied to a complete understanding of how the shuttle operated, its capacities, and the limits of what it could accomplish.  Managers at NASA decided to go against the judgement of the engineers and continue with the launch anyway.  Masculinity for the managers was tied to understanding and taking risks associated with competition in a market economy.  So, whereas risk was a characteristic of manager masculinity here, knowledge, forethought, and risk aversion characterized engineer masculinity.  Messerschmidt puts it this way:

[T]he disparate degree of power among men significantly impacts the varieties of masculinities constructed, and therefore, support for, or rejection of, the launch as a resources for doing masculinity.  Engineers were able to oppose the launch because such a practice was, in this particular situation, a resource for doing gender; attempting to prevent the launch was an accountable practice for doing engineer masculinity.  Thus… managers advocated an unsafe launch, whereas engineers resisted such a launch because of different masculine meanings attached to the particular practice.

The article brings up an important point.  To say that a space is masculine does not necessarily mean that all men are understood as equal within that space – that all men have equal access to or status in that space.  In fact, that’s often not the case (see my comments on gyms here).  Messerschmidt points out two interesting issues: interactions between conflicting masculinities at the workplace, and also, from a more macro level, it’s a great study of the intricacies of hierarchies and inequality between masculinities (see also here for Messerschmidt’s work with Mark Maier on the same subject).

So, was the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion the result of men posturing with one another at work?  Clearly, it’s more complicated than this, but what seems clear is that masculinity played a role in this tragedy.

–The citation for the article follows below.  It was published in Masculinities, a journal that no longer exists. 

Messerschmidt, James. 1995. “Managing to Kill: Masculinities and the Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion.” Masculinities 3(4): 1-22.

4 thoughts on “Was Masculinity to Blame for the Space Shuttle Challenger?

  1. I agree that masculine personalities were in play, but I don’t know if I agree it was a gender driven decision. There was great pressure to meet schedule and get the “teacher in space program” launched. Thiokol’s engineers, and initially managers, were very concerned about the cold temperature performance of the O-rings of their solid fuel booster design. NASA put great pressure on Thiokol managers who would be pinned as the party responsible for scrubbing the highly publicized launch.

    Safety risk management was brushed aside by NASA’s bullying arguments concerning cold temperature effects on the O-rings. It was known that at progressively lower launch temperatures, signs of blow-by from hot gases around the O-rings increased, but there were only three “data points” below about 60 or 70 degrees. NASA officials pressed Thiokol to state conclusively they had enough data to back their conclusion. They ultimately backed down from their position.

    The organizational culture at NASA was heavily driven by cost and schedule pressures, from both external and internal sources. Perhaps all this “Right Stuff” mentality is masculinity run amok. I think they failed to put in place a rational safety risk management system that would have effectively eliminated personal, subjective judgements.

    • Hi James, Your points are well taken. And ultimately, you’re supporting a very similar argument to Messerschmidt here. You’re right to highlight the internal and external forces, and while it’s true that the organizational culture at NASA is heavily cost- and schedule-driven, Messerschmidt argues that that organizational culture itself is gendered. Simply put, managers measured their masculinities by the launch schedule, engineers by an absolute knowledge of the spacecraft. He finds that these masculinities conflict with one another, but that, at the end of the day, engineers are able to be bullied in some ways that managers are not. So, it’s true that there was incredible pressure from above to continue with the launch schedule. But, Messerschmidt’s article highlights a gendered dimension behind the reasons why the pressure from below was seen–prior to the launch–as less worrisome. Thanks for your comments.

  2. Tristan,

    I suppose it’s fair to say that the Safety Risk Management systems in place today may very well be the consequence of learning from our mistakes in regard to male dominated, risk taking environments such as NASA. It’s easy to see that without an objective system of safety measures in place, the risk averse personalities would be seen as weak amongst their peers.

  3. If one chooses to blame The Space Shuttle crash on masculinity that same person needs to acknowledge the innate creativity of masculinity to invent such technology in the first place.

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