Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger Disaster

January 28, 2015 marked the 29th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Seventy-three seconds into the flight, the shuttle exploded high over the ocean, sending the astronauts to their deaths. The nation and the world were shocked and grief-stricken at the loss of life. Furthermore, thousands of schoolchildren were watching the launch live, and were psychologically scarred for years to come.

In the immediate aftermath, people couldn’t fathom how such a thing could happen. As it turns out, engineers had known for years that there was a potentially fatal flaw in the shuttle’s design. Even though they had tried up until the night before the launch to warn NASA of the likelihood of failure of the O-rings (a part designed to prevent blow-by of hot gasses), the engineers were overruled and ignored by their own management.

Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012), a mechanical engineer working for Morton Thiokol (the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters) participated in that late-night conference with a heavy heart. In late 1985, Boisjoly explicitly warned his managers that if the problem was not fixed, there was a distinct chance that a shuttle mission would end in disaster. He and the others watched the launch and witnessed their predictions coming true.

Boisjoly’s testimony during the investigation of the disaster cost him his friends and ultimately his job. But it also led him to speak out against ethical lapses in the workplace, earning him the Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1988.

Doing the right thing

In the workplace, we are faced with ethical dilemmas every day. Writing ethically might not require us to rise to the level of Boisjoly’s bravery, but it’s important to understand what stops us from doing the right thing.

Bruce Weinstein, the ‘Ethics Guy’, believes there are three obstacles:

  • Fear of not being accepted by peers, or of reprisals
  • A focus on short-term benefits, not looking to the future consequences of a decision
  • Foul mood: one’s own emotional or physical health prevents you from acting selflessly.

Boisjoly and his colleagues overcame those obstacles, and did their best to prevent the disaster. As writers, we can follow some practical rules for our communications.

  1. Use language and visuals with precision. Don’t use “weasel words” or play with statistics to make things seem better than they are.
  2. Prefer simple, direct expression of ideas. Avoid “legalese” or Byzantine language that hides the true message.
  3. Hold yourself responsible for how well the audience understands the message. Don’t violate your readers’ trust in you. If someone tries to get you to back down, stand your ground.
  4. Observe copyright laws & avoid plagiarism. A no-brainer, I think. Litigation is no fun.
  5. Respect your audience’s privacy. Don’t spam them or sell their names to spammers.

Anything else? Please add a comment!

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