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.

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One thought on “

  1. Overall I think you did a good job Francois. I have some suggestions for your post, but know that even without them your post is still very good overall.
    On the first paragraph, you start by assuming that the reader knows what article you are speaking about, but, if I am not mistaken, we intend to speak to a novel audience so you might want to introduce the title and author from the start. Likewise, I would write that the cause of the “explosion was a malfunction” and not “due to a malfunction;” just a thought. My last two comments for the last two sentences of the first paragraph would be to try to re-word “troubling factor” maybe to “problem” or another term and, lastly, maybe think about merging the two sentences just because they seem to echo each other.
    The second sentence of the second paragraph seems to jump from past tense to present tense. One way I would approach it is by keeping it all in past tense with “took” instead of “take” and “interpreted” instead of “interpret.” In the middle of the paragraph, I would suggest making “chance” plural since it talks about 100 of them and I would also change the preposition “in flight” to “of flight.”
    The third paragraph flowed very well and was very easy to read and understand, but when I got to the sentence beginning with “For example,” the “and furthermore” got me a little lost. I’m not sure what you were trying to say, but if you omit those two words it makes more sense. In the following sentence I would write “warned management about the dangers” as opposed to “warned managers the dangers.” Please remember that this is completely my opinion, so you can leave it as it too! In the sentence after that, I would change “MTI was” as opposed to “MTI were.” Moreover, in the last sentence of paragraph three, I would change the verb “will” to “would” since you started in past tense.
    On the fourth paragraph, in the second sentence, I think you accidentally capitalized engineers. In that same sentence, I would suggest changing one of the two, “disapproving” or “disapprove”, for an equivalent, just for better flow of the sentence. Right after this sentence, I think you have a sentence fragment; when you get to “launch” the reader is left waiting for the actual sentence, but instead it ends. Maybe you were intending to add something right after it? For the sixth sentence, I would add a reference since you directly quoted from the article. Finally, the last sentence is a bit confusing. If you exclude the second appearance of “the perspective of” that would show that “someone… gave the go ahead” and not “the perspective of someone… gave the go ahead.” Unless this is not what you are trying to convey, please just ignore this last suggestion, but I would still recommend rewording the sentence.
    In this fifth paragraph, I would suggest changing “or outside the company” to “compared to outside companies” since you are comparing two nouns (their superiors vs. outside companies) and not a noun and a preposition (their superiors vs. outside). On the second sentence I would omit “like” and “the” before NASA so that it reads “companies, Marshall and NASA…” In the fourth sentence, I would start with “This means MTI” and not “Meaning MTI” and I would end it at “success of the flight.” This way you avoid the run-on with the sentence that comes right after it. In that same sentence, however, I would place a comma after the introductory clause and I would try to check your verb agreement; you seem to start with “if…were to occur” and you end it with “will also”. Perhaps change the “will also” to “would also”? The rest of the paragraph flows really well.
    On the sixth paragraph, the second sentence starting with “While” is an introductory clause alone; it doesn’t lead to an actual sentence. I think maybe if you join it with the third sentence, by replacing the period with a comma, it should read just fine. Maybe this is what you were intending to do from the start. The rest of the paragraph reads perfectly!
    For the last paragraph, in the third sentence I would change your verbs from “If… were able to” to “If… had been able to” since you are talking about potential actions in the past. Likewise, I would introduce a comma after “facts,” since you are ending an introductory clause, change “than” to “then,” since you are speaking of a sequence and not a comparison, and lastly change ”ever” to “never.” The fourth sentence brings up again the use of verbs in the past tense, so I would suggest changing “If there was” to “if there had been.” I would also suggest adding a comma after “companies”, since it is the end of your introductory clause, and rephrasing the end to “the fact that it succeeded.” Finally, on your very last sentence, I don’t think your noun and its adjectives agree; you may say look back “to this day… as a sad and tragic one,” or maybe say “look back to this flight … as a sad and tragic disaster.”
    Again Francois, please please please remember that this is all completely based on what I would do, so it does not necessarily mean it is right. Overall I think you did a good job of describing the key moments and making sure to express your take on them. My only overall notes on the blog would be again to include the article name and author, maybe include an additional quotation or two from the article, and perhaps mention if you agreed or disagreed with Winsor’s take on the disaster. Overall good job! I really liked your overall content.

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