Title page for ETD etd-06042008-133647

Type of Document Master's Thesis
Author Schult, Emily Ann
URN etd-06042008-133647
Title It's Not Rocket Science: NASA's Crisis Communication Efforts as a Public Sector Organization Following the Columbia Shuttle Disaster
Degree Master of Mass Communication (M.M.C.)
Department Mass Communication
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Jinx Broussard Committee Chair
Bob Mann Committee Member
Lisa Lundy Committee Member
  • NASA
  • crisis communication
  • public relations
Date of Defense 2008-05-15
Availability unrestricted
Seventeen years after the Challenger accident, the space shuttle Columbia and its crew were only forty miles from Kennedy Space Center when the shuttle exploded during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. The explosion killed all seven astronauts onboard. NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations immediately jumped into action, declaring a contingency and following the Agency Contingency Action Plan for Space Flight Operations. As a public sector organization, one that must report to Congress and the American public, NASA is held to different standards than private organizations when it comes to releasing information. To understand how public sector organizations handle crises, the strategies and tactics NASA used following Columbia and how closely the agency followed the contingency plan, this study takes a look at NASA from an internal perspective using interviews with six people who were NASA employees at the time of Columbia and one journalist who covered the story. Through the interviews those who were there and handled the crisis explained that they followed the plan very closely, but that the key in having a plan is to allow for flexibility and to make sure employees understand how the plan works by holding rehearsals. Tactics used during Columbia included everything from press releases to press conferences, with NASA Web site playing a crucial role in the dissemination of information. NASA chose the strategy of open and honest communication following Columbia, which served the agency well, earning it praise from the media and the public. This idea of open and honest, or transparent, communication was crucial for NASA as a public sector organization and the organization provides a model for communication following a crisis that other public sector organizations could follow.
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