The Challenger

Right on the Left Coast remembers The Challenger explosion, twenty years ago.

Commander Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, Judy Resnick (who can be seen on the IMAX video To Fly on earlier missions), Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, El Onizuka (for whom Onizuka Air Force Base, the Blue Cube, in Sunnyvale, California was named), and teacher Christa McAuliffe. Touch the face of God for me.

But this particular paragraph is why I talk about the Challenger in my freshman English writing classes and my business writing classes.

We all remember the freezing temperatures that caused the O-rings to fail. The NASA video explains that the O-ring failure caused flames to shoot out of the side of one of the solid rocket boosters, weaking at least one of the bolts that connected one of the SRBs to the external tank (the big thing on which the shuttle sits). Eventually, that SRB started rocking back and forth since it was no longer securely held to the tank. That movement, and the stream of flame emanating from the SRB, weakend the tank. Given the aerodynamic stresses it was experiencing, the tank essentially ripped apart. The shuttle did as well. All of the fuel in the tank, much of it liquid oxygen, became a huge vapor cloud when released into the atmosphere. That, and the smoke trails from the two solid rocket boosters, is what we saw that day.

At Purdue, not too long after the explosion, we got copies of memos that had been sent to the NASA guys from their engineers. The engineers said that the secondary O-rings were showing a problem at freezing temperatures.

As was explained to me, and I repeat, the engineers didn’t explain what secondary O-rings are, they assumed their bosses knew. And the bosses knew what secondary means. That means back up. So, as long as there was no problem with the primary O-rings, the shuttle should be fine. Because of that thinking, nothing was done about the faulty secondary O-rings.

But the secondary O-rings weren’t back ups. They were just another kind of O-ring and when they failed, the shuttle and the people within it, died.

When I am speaking about memos, because the engineers wrote memos, or I am speaking about jargon, because they used jargon their audience did not understand, or when I am speaking about audience… At some point I speak about the Challenger and its loss because of secondary O-rings and a miscommunication.

Many of my students were born after the Challenger and don’t know there was any other shuttle ever lost besides Columbia.

I also tell the students, in the interest of closure, that after NASA realized what the problem was caused by, they hired aerospace engineers who had liberal arts or management background to translate the memos from the engineers to the management. One of my friends, a Purdue grad, was hired for that express purpose.

But if the engineers had thought to be more clear about their legitimate concerns, if they had thought about their audience more, perhaps the catastrophe could have been avoided. Or if the management had asked questions instead of assuming they knew why the memos were sent the catastrophe could have been avoided.

It is always easy to see in hindsight the problems and the solutions.

This particular problem, communication, and its result, dead people, is an extreme example of the need to write clearly for your audience. I tell the students that I hope they are never in a situation where lives will depend on their clarity, but that they might be. Know your audience. Be specific. Give enough details that an uneducated (in that area) person can understand.

But for the families and friends and students of those lost in the Challenger explosion, the tragedy is far more than a lesson in Aristotelian rhetorical theory.

And I, for one, don’t want it to be forgotten.

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