Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, 25 years later: Communication Lessons

Space Shuttle Challenger's smoke plume after in-flight breakup that killed all seven crew members

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. It was the worst accident in the history of manned space exploration up to that time. All seven crew members died in the disaster — among them was Christa McAuliffe, who was selected to be the first teacher in space, and the first strict civilian to go to space as part of the US space programme.

Challenger was destroyed as it broke up in mid-flight in the second minute of its 10th mission, on 28 January 1986 at 11:38:00 am Eastern Standard Time. The break-up was later found to have been due to the failure of an O-ring on its right solid-fuel rocket booster (SRB). The O-rings are used to seal the joints between the multiple segments of the SRBs.

STS-51-L crew (front row) Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.

While the presence of Christa McAuliffe on the crew had provoked some media interest, shuttle launches had become commonplace by this time and there was little live broadcast coverage of the launch. The only live national TV coverage available publicly was provided by CNN.

Challenger Disaster Live on CNN

The accident was thoroughly investigated and has been well documented. What interests me are the communication lessons drawn from the incident – it continues to be cited as a case study in subjects as diverse as engineering safety, the ethics of whistle-blowing, effective communications, and the perils of group decision-making.

According to the Wikipedia, Roger Boisjoly, the engineer who had warned about the effect of cold weather on the O-rings, left his job at Morton Thiokol and became a speaker on workplace ethics. For his honesty and integrity leading up to and directly following the shuttle disaster, Roger Boisjoly was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Many colleges and universities have also used the accident in classes on the ethics of engineering.

Information designer Edward Tufte has used the Challenger accident as an example of the problems that can occur from the lack of clarity in the presentation of information. He argues that if Morton Thiokol engineers had more clearly presented the data that they had on the relationship between low temperatures and burn-through in the solid rocket booster joints, they might have succeeded in persuading NASA managers to cancel the launch.

To me, it was extraordinary how President Ronald Reagan handled the aftermath of the tragedy. On the night of the disaster, he was scheduled to give his annual State of the Union Address. He postponed it by a week and instead gave a national address on the Challenger disaster from the Oval Office. The speech, written by author Peggy Noonan who was the president’s primary speech writer, is a fine piece that combines grief, tribute and resolve in just the right proportions. No lofty intellectualisation or pontification. Just plain, short sentences that appeal to the hearts. Ably delivered by the Great Communicator, it remains an excellent study in how a national leader can counsel a nation in grief without descending into either despair or denial. Draw your own contrasts with other tragedies before and since.

Ronald Reagan’s speech to the nation after the Challenger Shuttle explosion

President Reagan spoke at 5 pm EST from the Oval Office at the White House. The address was broadcast live on nationwide radio and television. Here is the full text of his speech (emphasis is mine):

Address to the Nation on the Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger

January 28, 1986

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge, and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us. We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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