NASA Scientists Display Intelligent Disobedience

NASA scientists and engineers made a very tough call. They cancelled the Mars Lander mission that was scheduled for this week because of a persistent leak that would have rendered a key scientific experiment unreliable. Why do I say this was a tough call? Due to the realities of interplanetary travel the next launch window will not occur until 2017. The other reality of how much it would cost to keep the mission intact until then may mean it doesn’t occur at all. Imagine the substantial pressure team members were under from themselves and from their higher ups to launch before this window closed!

Now compare this to the ill fated Challenger disaster, which occurred almost 30 years ago in January 1986. In that infamous event, the engineers objected to a launch because the O rings that sealed the rocket against escaping combustible gas were not guaranteed to remain intact at the cold temperatures that had settled in at the launch site. However, the engineers did not sustain their Intelligent Disobedience in the face of continuing bureaucratic pressure and eventually withdrew their objection. The rocket exploded 73 seconds after launch killing all 7 astronauts and setting back the space program nearly three years. The group dynamics that led to the disastrous decision have been written about and studied for decades.

In this decision to delay the launch of the Mars Lander we are seeing one of the rare instances in which an organization learns from past errors. Kudos to the NASA team. This is a great application of Intelligent Disobedience and doing the right thing.

Blog Post: NASA Scientists Display Intelligent Disobedience
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