Looking Back

I remember the Challenger. I was 13 at the time of the explosion. When It happened, I was skiing. There were radios in the lift huts, so we’d catch a scrap of news, commercial or music between every run.

Between a pair of runs, we heard something on the radio about an explosion. It took a couple of times past the lift hut to catch enough of the story get a picture.

But what I remember the most is thinking: ‘This must be wrong. It is the shuttle, It’s not supposed to blow up.’

But it did. And it did because some engineers and managers didn’t assemble and communicate their data in a way that would make clear the danger of proceeding with the launch. I’ve read the analysis of the communication presented by Edward Tufte. The graphs and charts arguing for launch are incompetent at best and misleading at worst.

I’ve been an Engineer. I’ve designed things that the public travels on every day and expects to always be standing or floating. I’ve presented the results of analysis where if it were wrong and no one questioned it, people could die. But if I wasn’t clear, people did question it. Engineers did review it. And they called me on errors that they saw.

Engineers make mistakes. Everyone does. But they get reviewed and corrected. In a position where public safety is at stake, you have to communicate clearly, and you have to have your analysis reviewed. If you don’t communicate clearly, and there’s a bias to push ahead, bad things will happen. A very bad thing did happen.

And apparently they’ve learned from the mistakes.

1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. Commenter January 28th, 2001 7:17 pm

    It doesn’t look like the engineers made mistakes, looks like it was the managers. See Feynman’s appendix.


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