From the early days of the space program, we understood that space exploration was a challenge to how well we could work together. As John F. Kennedy famously put it in his speech at Rice University, "[space exploration] will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills." And as anyone who organizes others knows, organizing requires communicating well.
But we have had tragedies in the space program, and one – the Challenger disaster – is attributable to a technical communication failure that cost seven lives.
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its ascent. An O-ring seal in its rocket boosters failed due to complications from a known design flaw that caused superheated gases to vent through the seal. In fact, that wasn't the only issue that NASA technicians were aware of: the O-ring had never been tested in temperatures as cold as those that morning.
Why didn't those issues stop the launch? Several factors contributed, according to the 2002 Challenger case study published by the IEEE Professional Communication Society:
- People in the decision-making process were invested in the results they wanted and didn't critically analyze the information given. There was resistance to pushing back the launch, which meant that the technical evidence was interpreted in a hostile light.
- NASA relied on incomplete data. The O-rings had been tested, just not in the right conditions. But that incomplete data informed the launch.
- Engineers didn't have the persuasive power they needed. The data available were inconclusive enough to raise questions, but not enough to definitively say something was wrong. That meant that possible safety concerns had to be weighed against the mission schedule.
- In many cases, the chain of reporting was ignored. Information never made it through the channels it needed to.
The Challenger disaster resulted in the grounding of our space shuttle fleet for nearly three years as safety measures were inspected. And not just equipment – the disaster became a case study in how a technical communication failure could occur.
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