Assessing NASA’s Safety Culture: The Limits and Possibilities of High-Reliability Theory


Arjen Boin is the director of the Stephenson Disaster Management Institute and an associate professor in the Public Administration Institute at Louisiana State University. He writes about crisis management, public leadership, and institutional design.

Paul Schulman is a professor of government at Mills College in Oakland, California. He has done extensive research on high-reliability organizations and has written Large-Scale Policy Making (Elsevier, 1980) and, with Emery Roe, High Reliability Management (Stanford University Press).


After the demise of the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board sharply criticized NASA’s safety culture. Adopting the high-reliability organization as a benchmark, the board concluded that NASA did not possess the organizational characteristics that could have prevented this disaster. Furthermore, the board determined that high-reliability theory is “extremely useful in describing the culture that should exist in the human spaceflight organization.” In this article, we argue that this conclusion is based on a misreading and misapplication of high-reliability research. We conclude that in its human spaceflight programs, NASA has never been, nor could it be, a high-reliability organization. We propose an alternative framework to assess reliability and safety in what we refer to as reliability-seeking organizations.