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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Apollo, Challenger, and Columbia: The Decline of the Space Program by Phillip K. Tompkins, Emily V. Tompkins (A Study in Organizational Communication: Roxbury Publishing Company) "This book deviates from traditional organization communication texts because it is a detailed case study of one particular organization (yet is tied to other organizations). Tompkins helps to show how communication theory concepts have real-world significance.... [He does] a great job of introducing key communication concepts and applying them to the history of the space program. I love the author's writing style—it is a captivating story and provides strong academic insight. I think students will love this book...." 

"While the unfolding of the sequence of events nicely frames the book, Tompkins brings in relevant theories and concepts that provide the needed foundations for understanding practice. The book provides many teaching moments about organizational communication, including such topics as culture, decision-making, identification, leadership, change, structure, and ethics. Few books in our field do this good a job of telling a compelling story while also providing valuable theoretical insight." 

Phillip K. Tompkins' book provides unparalleled longitudinal insight into the organizational successes and failures of NASA. The book treats NASA over its 45-year history from 1958 to 2003, concentrating on five "data points":

  • 1967: when Tompkins first served as a Summer Faculty Consultant in Organizational Communication to legendary rocket scientist Wernher von Braun during the Apollo Program.

  • a 1968: when he served in the same capacity to help reorganize NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

  • 1986: when he investigated the communication failures that caused the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

  • 1987: when he researched NASA's highly successful Aviation Safety Reporting System.

  • 2003: when he interpreted the communication failures leading up to the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia.

In focusing on organizations in trouble, Tompkins identifies ten "communication transgressions," one of which, for example, is "ignorantia affectata »--an affected or cultivated ignorance of organizational problems. In contrast to these failed organizations and their pathologies, Tompkins offers a sketch of two healthy organizations that live by "value logics"—applying ethical values in the organizational workplace. There are lessons to be learned from NASA's fall. With all of the high-profile ethical lapses in U.S. corporations, Tompkins advocates individuals and organizations taking responsibility for their actions.

Perhaps the best way to begin an explanation of how I'm qualified to write this book is to describe my relationship with the two men to whom it is dedicated. I was fortunate to have been recruited by W. Charles Redding to work under him in pursuit of my doctorate at Purdue University. Redding had almost single-handedly created a new field of study, now called organizational communication. As my adviser he created a plan of study for my graduate work, including classes in economics, the sociology of organizations, inferential statistics, criticism, rhetorical and communication theory.

I was fortunate to be in the first generation of Redding's graduate students in what is now a large and growing field. Our aim then was to understand complex organizations as communication systems. We took as our assumption that organizations cannot function, indeed cannot exist, without communication. We came to believe over time that organizations are constituted by communication.

An organization comes into existence when one or more per-sons recruit others to join them in pursuit of purposes and objectives. Following Chester Barnard (1938), a successful executive and management theorist, we believed that the first function of an executive is to establish and maintain a system of communication, a structure, linking all members, clients, and customers. We studied upward- and downward-directed channels and media, feedback loops, and an enduring concept Redding labeled the "communication satisfaction" of organizational members. Superior-subordinate communication was a hot topic at Purdue and remains today the most heavily researched topic in the field.pionerring seminars were enriched by his experiences as a corporate consultant with a major aerospace company. He also testified as an expert witness and consultant to General Electric in an extremely important case heard by the National Labor Relations Board. He taught us, however, that an organizational consultant could do more damage than an inept brain surgeon. He also taught us to avoid the "pro-management bias" of certain business schools. We were to treat all members of an organization as equal in importance, if not in status. In an attempt to demonstrate the even-handedness of his program, he persuaded me to do my Ph.D. dissertation on an international labor union. In the process of my re-search he guided my attempt to create and measure the concept of semantic-information distance in human hierarchies, a topic that applies to NASA today.

Semantic-information distance is the degree of understanding-misunderstanding among people at different levels of an organization, as well as the degree of knowledge-ignorance of ideas crucial to the organization's purpose and rules. We developed a method of measuring semantic-information distance that combined quantitative and qualitative data. After I completed my doctorate, I was hired as an assistant professor at Purdue and was given the task of teaching the first undergraduate course in organizational communication.

After three years—in 1965—I moved on to Wayne State University in Detroit as an associate professor; I taught graduate seminars and workshops for management and labor unions in the Industrial Relations Center. In early 1967 I received a phone call from a total stranger in Huntsville, Alabama, with a German accent. He introduced himself as Walter Wiesman, the Coordinator of Internal Communication at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, then the largest field center in the National Aeronautics and Space Ad-ministration (NASA).

Wiesman explained later that he was one of the Germans brought from the German space program to the United States in Project Paperclip. They had surrendered to the U.S. Army and were carefully screened before being brought to Fort Bliss, Texas. They tested their uprated V-2 rockets at White Sands, New Mexico, for scientific and military purposes. Later they were transferred to the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. They did the research and development and fabrication of the Army's arsenal of

intercontinental ballistic missiles during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Wiesman was the youngest of the 120 Germans brought over and the only one without a scientific or engineering education. He had learned at the German space center in Peenemünde on the Baltic the importance of communication. So had his boss, the legendary rocket wizard, Dr. Wernher von Braun. When many of the Germans were transferred, over the Army's protest, to NASA in 1960, they assumed many of the leadership positions in the new George C. Mar-shall Space Flight Center (MSFC). Von Braun was the first director of the space center; he had discovered on his own the crucial importance of organizational communication as the Technical Director in


Von Braun encouraged Wiesman to develop a program in organizational communication for the education of the Marshall Center employees. He was also encouraged to bring in experts to conduct research at the space center. Wiesman had joined several professional organizations devoted to the study of communication and had met W. Charles Redding. Redding gave Wiesman my name as a potential consultant to NASA. Would I, asked Wiesman, be willing to spend the summer of 1967 as a Faculty Consultant to NASA at the Marshall Center? I would be treated as a civil servant, a GS-13, and would have to hurry to get in my detailed application for employment and a security clearance.

I jumped at the chance. NASA's field centers brought in professors in scientific and engineering disciplines from universities around the country to serve as Summer Faculty Consultants. They most often conducted and directed research projects. Someone told me I was the first or one of the first "soft" scientists brought into this program.

Wiesman was willing to place a bet on me despite my relative youth—I was 33 at the time—and then explained what my duties would be. I would work eight hours a day (sometimes longer hours) reviewing and evaluating Wiesman's program in internal communication, including his five-year plan, conducting research at the center, and supervising research done by doctoral students from Purdue at the Marshall Center. Wiesman had also organized a national conference on organizational communication in August of 1967 for interested representatives from aerospace contractors and other businesses and people from government agencies and the aca-

I was, however, learning more than I was teaching. Wiesman put me through a thorough orientation program of visits to the laboratories, the museum—I read von Braun's correspondence with Albert Schweitzer about the possibility of afterlife for humans—and the test facilities. I watched a test of the mighty F-1 rocket engine, described below, one of five on the Saturn V rocket that would launch the Apollo space capsule. The atmosphere at the Marshall Center that summer was electric with excitement and anticipation. They had done the research and development of the moon rocket there, and the first test flight was scheduled later that year-1967. Its first flight to take astronauts to the moon was due to take place in 1969, only two years in the future. I got caught up in the excitement like everybody else.

I also attended the Fifth Annual Summer Lecture Series in Aero-space Science and Engineering sponsored by NASA, the Marshall Center, and the U.S. Army Missile Command. A certificate pro-claiming P. K. Tompkins had successfully completed the lecture series (20 hours) hangs proudly in my study today. I am forever grateful there wasn't a final exam! The only lecture I can remember was on the "Third Body Problem." It was about a mathematical riddle of what would happen if a third body entered the gravitational field of two other bodies. I'm told the problem has since been solved by a supercomputer; the reason I remember the lecture is because the mathematician delivered the entire lecture standing on one leg, the other crossed at the knee, all the while tempting the law of gravity.

the method of the police procedural, the genre I discovered on a trip to Sweden in 1977 in the work by Sjowall and Wahloo, books such as The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, The Fire Engine That Disappeared, and The Man On The Balcony. Their books begin with the fact of a crime—that much is known. The narrative unfolds as the police gather evidence; as they gather evidence, they develop hunches and track down false leads. My version of this fictional method was to begin not with a crime but with the fact of the Columbia accident. As new information is collected, it is presented to the reader, day by day, week by week. As the evidence is obtained, it is presented as the re-porters presented what they and NASA were finding and learning; the organizational past of NASA is presented in flashbacks.

Quite early in the investigation a reporter referred in print to Sherlock Holmes, making me realize that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's method was similar to the police procedural; that inspired a brief discussion of The Hound of the Baskervilles and Sherlock Holmes' method of deduction. Reporters wrote of the "mystery" and "clues," and a NASA briefer spoke of NASA's "detective work." A key figure in the launch described NASA's graphic method of re-verse engineering, the fault tree analysis, a cognitive method analogous in a formalized way to the methods of a mystery and police procedural.

In all of these methods we begin with what is known, whether it is a murder or a shuttle accident, then branch out into possible explanations. Hypotheses have a tendency to multiply, increasing in a way positively correlated with the complexity of the case. The detective or the engineer must be able to discriminate among hypotheses, rejecting those that do not help explain the evidence. The most costly part of the search is the inductive process of bringing facts, evidence, or data to bear on hypotheses in either a positive or negative way. Some hypotheses can be rejected, some can't. In the end our deductions are qualified as probable causes; in the moral realm, however, there are some certainties.

These ideas about presentation emerged during the search it-self, from reading news conferences and reporters' articles. I give a tip of the hat to the reporters who covered this case. They were persistent from the first days in asking questions NASA did not enjoy. Indeed, certain NASA officials now appear to have been in denial about possible causes, but the reporters kept pressing them for answers. The New York Times had suffered a serious blow when they

discovered a reporter had broken a commandment of journalism, but in this case the newspaper regained its credibility by aggressive and accurate reporting, by raising important questions, and by pressing NASA constantly for answers. They quickly corrected minor errata, including mistaken claims given by NASA officials. The news reports and government documents at times provided opposing viewpoints.

In the narrative chapters about the Columbia accident I have avoided the scholarly impedimenta of footnotes, sources, dates, and page numbers. Instead, the names of reporters are used in the text, sometimes with their datelines, including abbreviations. All the articles are from online archives and don't have the same page numbers they would in the printed version; each article begins with page one, page two, and so on. The reader with access to the internet can therefore easily track down any of the articles used; in the mean-time the reporters get credit. In other chapters I have used a style of references common to the sciences, physical and social, the use of parenthetical and shorthand pointers to the fuller citations in the list of references.

As mentioned earlier, I have adopted a more informal style than in the past. Retiring from the university five years ago loosened my style somewhat. In addition, my experiences in NASA and the space program during the Glory Years taught me they were primarily oral cultures; the work got done in oral discourse, complete with acronyms and contractions. It seemed more natural to me at times to approximate the less formal style of speech. It does occur to me it may also be an unconscious desire to return to that glorious culture of the past.

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