January 28, 1986, a day that will forever in infamy. While the teenage generation may find it difficult to recall the tragic events of this day, you would be hard pressed to find any person above the age of 25 who doesn’t remember where they were when they witnessed a tragedy. On January 28,1986, seven American heroes and pioneers were sent to an early grave at the hands of miscommunication and failure to heed the warnings of a few engineers. I am speaking, of course, about the Challenger incident. On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger took off and exploded in mid-flight, thus killing all seven of its crew members, one being a teacher, all on national television. The country sat back and watched in horror as the highly anticipated Challenger flight disintegrated before their eyes.
Needless to say, after this tragedy, the causes of the explosion were a mystery. The entire country wanted the answers as to what wrong; NASA’s number one priority quickly became isolating and identifying the cause of the explosion. In September of 1988, D. A. Winsor published a paper entitled: “Communication Failures Contributing to the Challenger Accident: An example for technical communicators.” Only two years after the disaster, Winsor appeared to blow the lid off the whole mystery. In Winsor’s publication, he highlights the main technological aspects as to what went wrong, being the O-Ring, as well as highlighting several key communication mishaps and in some cases disregard that led to the events of that infamous day. Winsor also includes copies of the original memos sent between employees and managers, further outlining the communication errors that caused the untimely deaths of seven brave men and women.
While Winsor’s publication was filled incredible information, there were several pieces of his publication that made a lasting impression on my persona. The first section I came across was entitled “EARLY RESPONSES TO BAD NEWS: DISBELIEF AND FAILURE TO SEND UPWARD.” In this section the initial disbelief at the fact that engineers had discovered malfunctions with the O-Ring before flight is discussed along with the Managements response to the engineers’ report. As the engineers continued to send letters to their managers for them to make decisions, their managers would the pass on the information to NASA headquarters displaying “little sense of urgency”. As time continued to pass on with the little to nothing happening in terms of solving the O-Ring problem, the management staff was finally convinced that the tests done to date were sufficient, implying that the management still did not perceive the O-Ring problem to be crucial. Winsor presents this information in light of showing the misinterpretation of the engineers information, presenting the idea that the disaster could have been entirely avoided had one person stepped up and treated the data with the significance it carried.
The next essential section in Winsor’s publication was the section entitled “The Split Between Managers and Engineers.” The information conveyed in this section by Winsor only helps to show how the engineers continued treating the O-Rings as serious matters, yet the managerial staff treated it as “old news.” One engineer working on the project even opted for proposing a sort of embargo on the project- he proposed a refusal to ship any more parts or SRBs until the problem with the O-Ring was resolved, however he failed to communicate this to his superiors and the production continued along as planned. As the launch date grew closer and closer, the engineers and managers became more divided. Engineers continued to press for a launch delay until the O-Rings could be corrected while the managers failed to heed their warnings. One engineer was even quoted saying “that no one wanted to hear what I had to say.” Winsor argues and uses this evidence to further her argument on the necessity of effective communication.
The final section of importance was a section entitled: “Internal Vs External Communication Of Concern From MTI Engineers”. As a way to prove the engineers inability to effectively communicate the magnitude of the O-Ring problem as well as the necessity for good communication, Winsor cites a memo and response by a NASA official who never had received a memo. The NASA employee went on record speaking of the memo’s failure to communicate its intent. However, the engineers also sent two memos to their superiors specifically to express the extent to which the dangers with the O-Rings lie. Memos were also sent out with data results from an experiment showing failure of the O-Rings at low temperatures. Winsor included this information and reaction by a NASA employee not only to show the fault that lies with the managerial staff in their inability to analyze technical data and interpret memos from their employees, but also for the need for better communication in technical disciplines such as engineering.
As an Undergraduate student studying mechanical engineering, this article hits home for me. As a prospective future engineer, I could only imagine if I was in their shoes or if something similar to this happened to me in my future job. The article opened my eyes to my duty, as an engineer, to ensure that I am an effective communicator in my work environment. When I am working in the field in the future, I must ensure that I express myself in a clear and concise manor that will deny any possibility for interpretation other than my intended meaning.
Winsor’s article proved to be a very informative piece that awakened a sense of fear and shame in me. To think that an entire disaster could have been avoided had one Manager just said “No” to launch or if just one engineer had been more explicit in their writing to their superiors. By writing an unbiased article on the causes of the Challenger disaster, Winsor showed how the blame for the disaster lay neither with the engineers or project managers. The blame is equally shared amongst them, and awareness must be raised in the technical fields about the importance and sensitivity of effective communication during any project, whether it’s a simple prototype or rocket science.