The disastrous consequences of poor communication

It was an unusually chilly morning at the Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986 as the countdown expired. Within seconds, two enormous solid rocket boosters ignited and slowly hoisted the 4.5 million pound Space Shuttle Challenger off the charred launch pad from Launch Complex 39B. Among the seven crew members selected for Challenger’s 10th NASA mission (STS-51-L) was a 37 year old high school teacher named Christa McAuliffe from Concord New Hampshire. McAuliffe would become the first teacher in history to be launched into orbit.

As the orbiter accelerated and gained altitude, a breathless nation watched with pride and enthusiasm for this historic mission to unfold. Mission activities would include the first high school science lesson ever taught from space using live specimens.

73 seconds into the launch at an altitude of 48,000 feet, the orbiter rapidly began to disintegrate into a massive fireball. The two solid rocket boosters still burning at full throttle disengaged cleanly from the shuttle’s ruptured external fuel tank and continued to fly independently like out of control missiles. Within seconds, everything became completely quiet. Suddenly, the majestic imagery of a shuttle launch had been replaced by a horrific image of a gigantic spider cloud with thousands of shrapnel chunks spiraling into the Atlantic Ocean.

The wreckage zone from the accident was overwhelming. Debris was spread out over 350 square miles of Atlantic Ocean with some still falling from the sky up to an hour after the accident. The massive salvage and recovery effort conducted by the US Navy involved 11 naval vessels, 41 deep sea divers and one nuclear powered submarine.

In March of 1986, the remains of the Challenger crew compartment were discovered at the bottom of the ocean in 100 feet of water and approximately 15 miles east of the launch site. Experts believe the crew compartment remained intact after the shuttle broke apart and continued in a forward and upward trajectory to 65,000 feet before falling and smashing into the ocean at a speed of greater than 200 miles per hour. It was quickly determined that the crew had died instantly upon impact.

On February 3, 1986, President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12546 to assemble an investigative commission of 14 individuals tasked with identifying what destroyed the Challenger orbiter. On June 9, 1986 the Rogers Commission Report was submitted to the desk of the president concluding that the root cause of the accident was the failure of a sealing joint known as an “O” ring joint located inside the right solid rocket booster. This failure allowed pressurized hot gasses to leak into the adjacent external fuel tank which eventually led to structural failure of the Challenger shuttle.

Other findings concluded that NASA’s rocket propulsion contractor Morton Thiokol had known about the “O” sealing joint flaw as far back as 1977 but failed to properly communicate this defect to NASA engineers. Information designer Edward Tufte concluded that Morton Thiokol failed miserably by omitting critical details in its NASA presentations about the risks of the “O” ring. Furthermore, Tufte continued, had Morton Thiokol made the effort to plan and design better slides showing meaningful and persuasive details, NASA might have reconsided future launches until conducting its own investigations. Because this scenario represented a perfect example of poor design and presentation of information; Tufte has used it as a case study in his teachings at Yale University.

Upon digesting the Rogers Commission Report further, it was clear another massive failure had brought down the Challenger-a failure to communicate.

In my opinion, communication is one of the most important functions human beings conduct on a daily basis. Successful communication requires two ingredients: an engaged audience, willing to listen or read what you have to say across from a presenter or writer who can be trusted to deliver accurate information in a coherent and meaningful manner without a personal agenda. Communication and documentation is more than just an afterthought or a nice to have; it’s essential. In the case of the Space Shuttle Challenger, it was a matter of life and death and the violent destruction of $1.7 billion space vehicle.

Imagine the dangers of pharmaceuticals or surgery without proper documentation or communication. Imagine the chaos and unimaginable death and destruction that could unfold without proper communication at an Air Traffic Control facility. You get the picture. The list goes on and on.

If you don’t agree, ponder it later as you sit cursing over a disassembled bicycle at two in the morning on Christmas Day.

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