On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board.

In an ambitious multimedia case, Columbia’s Final Mission, HBS faculty members Michael Roberto, Richard Bohmer, and Amy Edmondson (and research associates Erika Ferlins and Laura Feldman) created a unique learning experience. Students were assigned the parts of six managers or engineers who were involved in the Columbia mission. After logging into their password-protected role, students could watch, read, and listen to documents, including actual e-mails and phone messages—as well as video interviews and audio reenactments of meetings—that took them from the shuttle’s launch to Day 8, when a critical meeting concluded that damage to the shuttle’s tiles during lift-off did not threaten the mission: a conclusion that later proved tragically wrong.

“We wanted the students to feel like part of the action, to experience the pressures and difficulties of making decisions with ambiguous, incomplete information,” Roberto told the HBS Bulletin in March 2005.

When gleaning lessons from Columbia and other disasters, Edmondson added, it’s is important to be realistic in considering the controls, guidelines, and training that could be put in place to improve safety. “Risk and error will never go away,” she concluded. “But we can do better. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

For information on the case, go to:  http://www.hbs.edu/it/courseware/teaching/columbia.html

To purchase the case, go to Harvard Business Publishing:  http://harvardbusinessonline.hbsp.harvard.edu/b02/en/common/item_detail.jhtml?id=305032

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Images from the Columbia’s Final Mission multimedia case Columbia’s final mission