What went wrong with the Hubble Space Telescope (and what managers can learn from it)

NASA's former director of astrophysics, Charlie Pellerin, has learned a thing about leadership and project failure

Charles 'Charlie' Pellerin.

Charles 'Charlie' Pellerin.

Diagram from the Allen report.

It was a misalignment of about 1.3mm. "Holy Christ," says Pellerin. "In an optical system this is like missing by a thousand miles."

The review board had considered three possibilities when it came to the null corrector, according to the Allen report:

"(1) The field lens was inserted backward.

"(2) The index of refraction of the field lens was incorrect (i.e., the wrong glass was used).

"(3) The optical elements were incorrectly spaced (a circumstance that seemed highly unlikely because of the method used to set the lens spacings)."

After an analysis of the null corrector, which had been stored by the contractor after the mirror was finished, number three turned out to be the culprit,"

"So the next thing that happened was really kind of interesting," Pellerin says.

"Being a technically trained person and completely unaware of the power of social constructs, I thought 'Great it's a technical failure.' I mean it's not my fault, I wasn't even there. I'm off the hook — that's what I'm thinking. Because these things are usually unpleasant when you're responsible for them."

But the chair of the failure review board wanted to look into it further. What he found was that when the mirror was removed from the bed of nails and put in its three point mount, it was tested again. "We tested that mirror over and over and over with a different kind of device, the old style refractive null corrector," Pellerin says.

The results? "Half wave of error, half wave of error, half wave of error."

"So some people sat down and said, 'What's going on?" Pellerin recalls. "The mindset was that the mirror can not be other than perfect. So something else is happening. They concluded that the mirror was sagging under the force of gravity in the three point mount rather than being on the bed of nails by half a wave.

"Well it turned out that was wrong. But they rationalised, rationalised, rationalised. What kind of minds does a project like Hubble attract? The best. So [Allen] said, 'I want to understand why the smart guys working on it didn't go dig in and find out what's going on.'"

The project had suffered other challenges beyond fabricating and mounting the mirror; staff were being "hammered" all the time, Pellerin says. In addition there was constant angst about how far the project had gone over budget. "Hubble's initial budget was $434 million we closed it at $1.8 billion just for the flight segment; big overruns."

"So the way it works is you tend to blame the people doing the work," Pellerin says. "So we're hammering on them, hammering on them so they had no free time or no inclination to track down anything that wasn't a critical problem because we have other critical problems. Difficult technical things that we couldn't solve yet."

The review board also found that a hostile environment had been created for the contactor, which meant "they told us about any problem at their peril," Pellerin says.

When the board's findings were reported to Congress, it was found that the question of leadership had been at the centre of the project's failure. "Now you might have thought that would have heaped criticism on me, but everybody else around me is technical too. The whole NASA management chain is technical people. They all did just like I did with Challenger: They heard that but it didn't register, didn't register on me."

In the wake of the Hubble disaster, Pellerin found himself in the office of the congresswoman who headed NASA appropriations. She wasn't happy. "When she got through throwing newspapers, she's screaming at me and there's spittle collecting on my glasses. We just stood there and she puts her finger in my chest and says this is done. We're going to forget this ever happened. You've humiliated me with this, you've made me look like an idiot with what you've done. And so there will not be any servicing for [Hubble]. Ever."

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NASA made essentially the same mistake 17 years after the Challenger crash, on Columbia's last flight: the same refusal to properly evaluate well-founded technical concerns, in order to press on with the mission plan.

George Margolin


Rohan's article on Pellerin of NASA -- was a MARVELOUS treatise on the hows and whys of complex (ASTRONOMICALLY) product developments. But even smaller ones MUST be looked at in the same way. MisTEAKS can and do happen. But Never by ME, of coarse.

I'll look up other writings of Mr. Rohan. He does good stuff.

FYI --- I'm an ooooooooooold professional inventor with 26 and growing, patents.

George Margolin



Unsaid is Perkin Elmer was the premier telescopes-in-space company yet they were not permitted to use those national defense resources for this program (even as just auditors) that could have done this correctly (in their sleep "Oh, another mirror? What is this our NNth?"). Somewhat due to Congressional ethics rules enforced by IGs that required companies spend a dollar lest a nickel be wasted, or per some academic lawyer's view, inappropriately used.

This wasn't (just) the Challenger with its cascading judgment failures. It was a failure to use the "A team" save for the building they once lived in.

A tragedy of the first order - those things we do to ourselves wittingly. Hopefully a lot of the spittle blew back. Pity Senator DeConcini wasn't there to get his share given the damage he did to these programs (and their people who most often served in silence).



This fits the cockpit crew's lack of proper communications and team work that lead to AF447 finding its way to the bottom of the Atlantic. The crew was not a team. It was a rigid hierarchy.


John Hutchinson


Empowerment in the workplace brings about improved morale. Being able to correct without fear of reprisal is good for self esteem and job satisfaction.
The best places for service are the ones were any person behind the counter can make a decision on the boss' behalf without having to go "and get authority" (with some limits obviously) and know that they will be supported.
I would love to hear Pellerin's seminars, I'm sure they are eye opening.



A copy of this report should go to every federal politician - with instructions to read it.

Particularly the ones who like to pretend they are experts on national communications networks and a few other things.
: )



I STRONGLY suggest everyone read Phil Tompkins’ book on NASA from 1958 to 2003 — a former professor of mine who literally created the field of Organizational Communication, and for Von Braun, CREATED the hierarchy at NASA and the vendor relationships (and leader/power structure) that achieved the objectives of the 1960s, but whose lessons were completely lost by Challenger, the above article and of course, Columbia.

I was so fortunate to be a student of his 30 years ago.

Tompkins —>

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

* 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 catastrophic failure of the space shuttle Columbia.

Leader Syndrome


As a conclusion for managers:
1) "Go slow to go fast". Cost of change drastically increases overtime. It is thus key to involve in a cross-functional approach project stakeholders at the very early stage of the project in order to go through an open and honest risk exercise.
2) create a culture of feedback and openness that will support a constructive sharing, starting from the top hierachy

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