In Brief

Organizational processes contributed to the deaths of seven astronauts in the Feb. 1 Columbia shuttle disaster, testified Ohio State University psychology professor David Woods, PhD, during an Oct. 29 House Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing.

Woods, who studies how team cognition contributes to success and failure in complex, high-risk systems such as nuclear power facilities, said that the shuttle's fatal disintegration was caused "not simply by debris, but by holes in organizational decision-making."

One critical hole in NASA's organization, testified Woods, was its inability to monitor tradeoffs between production pressure and safety. That failure led to complacency about the false assumption that insulation shedding was unlikely to damage the shuttle.

A quasi-independent safety-monitoring organization within NASA, said Woods, would ensure that models of risk would be constantly questioned, even when the organization is working under an intensive launch schedule.