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.