In the article “Communication Failures Contributing to the Challenger Accident: An Example for Technical Communicators”, Winsor describes the communication failures that occurred prior to the Challenger accident. The Challenger was a space shuttle that exploded during flight before exiting the Earth’s atmosphere. The cause of the explosion was a malfunction in the Challenger’s solid rocket boosters. The problem is that there were people aware that the Challenger shuttle would malfunction; why would people that knew there would be a malfunction in the rocket boosters not cancel the flight?
People did try to cancel the flight. One of the major reasons that the flight was not canceled was because managers and engineers took the same information and interpreted them differently. Some of the engineers communicated to their managers the fact that there was a malfunction in the rocket boosters. The engineers took this information and estimated that there was 1 out of 100 chances of flight failure and loss of life; however, management thought there was a 1 out of 100,000 chance of flight failure and loss of life. This difference of interpretation caused management to think lightly of the situation.
Another cause of the communication failure is that it’s difficult to give or receive bad news. It’s very difficult to communicate bad news to your superiors or outsiders. The bad news then took much longer to spread throughout the company. One Engineer Roger Boisjoly, from MTI (Morton Thoikol International), communicated to his superiors just how dangerous the O-ring erosion was to the flight. O-ring erosion allowed for hot pressurized gas to escape its specific chamber, and burn nearby objects. Other tanks in the shuttle that held fuel and furthermore could cause flight failure or an explosion. Boisjoly warned management about the dangers of O-ring erosion and said that there should be a team of engineers specifically assigned to try and provide a solution. The management at MTI was then supposed to tell Marshall, the company that contracted MTI, that they were having problems with the O-ring which could lead to flight failure. Instead of MTI telling the whole truth, they told Marshall that there was an O-ring problem but played down the gravity of the situation. MTI stated that they could not guarantee that the seal the O-ring should create would be able to hold throughout the whole lift off.
After discovering this information, the battling of interpretations between engineers and management started again. With the take-off date approaching, engineers disapproved of the shuttle launch and persuaded one of the vice-presidents at MTI to echo their response. While the rest of management saw O-ring erosion as an acceptable risk in the flight and wanted to continue with the launch. Among the final days before the Challenger was scheduled to take flight, MTI held a meeting where the four vice-presidents voted on whether they should perform the launch. Three of the vice-presidents gave the go ahead to allow the launch, while one vice-president, Lund, still did not want to perform the launch. Lund finally gave in when he was told to take off his “Engineering hat” (Winsor, 106) and put on his “management hat”. From the perspective of an engineer the launch should have been canceled but management still gave the go ahead for the launch.
One of the key moments was that the engineers at MTI knew the gravity of the O-ring erosion, but they would vary the seriousness of the situation when communicating to those that were their superiors compared to outside companies. This lack of true communication caused the other companies, Marshall and NASA (the company actually performing the launch) to not understand just how serious the situation was. It is also sad that one of the reasons MTI were not telling the whole truth was because they feared losing their contract with Marshall. This means MTI worried more about job security than the success of the flight. So, MTI feared losing their jobs more than they feared the flight crew dying. This may be a rash judgment placed on the engineers because they did not willingly say this, but actions speak louder than words and they allowed for the shuttle to take off.
Another key moment was when a group was assigned to solely work on fixing the O-ring erosion issue. While this group was trying to work on something vital to the success of the mission. They kept on getting halted by administrative delays and a lack of cooperation from the company. People in the group complained that they were being delayed by regulations management set in place for long-term development, when the problem needed a solution fast. This shows that the management at MTI was still not fully convinced of the gravity of the situation when the engineers knew truly how catastrophic the O-ring erosion could be. This showed the disconnect of interpretation between the management and engineers. Whenever you’re working with people that are not on the same page, the process of doing something becomes longer. Also, it showed that management pretty much created the group just to let the engineers think they cared about the situation when clearly the management did not see much alarm in O-ring erosion.
When reading this article, I was surprised and shocked at what caused the Challenger launch to fail. The problem that caused the Challenger flight to fail was preventable, through communication, if the companies had able to communicate how serious O-ring erosion was, and if the engineers had been able to communicate with management and show them how to interpret the facts than the Challenger incident may ever have occurred. If there was constant and truthful communication between the companies we might have been able to look back at the Challenger flight and praise the fact that it succeeded. But communication did not occur so we look back on this day as a sad and tragic disaster.