Clear Thinking Made Visible vs the Challenger Tragedy – A Case Study


Bad graphical design can turn otherwise obvious statistical patterns of cause and effect into the visually arcane and confused. A profoundly tragic example of this is the frustrated attempt by NASA engineers to abort the fatal NASA Challenger launch of January 27th, 1986. But what can trial attorneys learn from this terribly sad case of visual miscommunication?

 “Good design is clear thinking made visible.”

                        – Edward Tufte, Yale Professor

                           and Information Design Guru

In information design guru Edward Tufte’s seminal publication “Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narration” (Feb, 1997), the visual evidence used in deciding to launch the Challenger is examined in careful detail.

A Case Not Made – A Plea Not Understood

O-Ring Damage_1Prior to the ill-fated launch of the January Challenger mission, NASA scientists and engineers were heavily concerned over the negative effect of cold temperature on the performance of the now notorious Challenger booster rocket O-rings. The temperature at launch time was projected to be 29 degrees (F).

NASA engineers tried to persuade their superiors to postpone the launch until temperatures were more favorable. To support their case to abort the mission launch, the two charts seen here were presented to the NASA decision-makers. The visual representations attempt to describe the O-ring erosion data.

O-Ring Damage_2Sadly, these charts did not dissuade the NASA senior staff from going forward with the launch. The charts reflected accurately accrued data. But unfortunately, the way that data was presented did not clearly illuminate the very real risk for catastrophy. They illustrated prior launch O-ring failures and where those failures occurred, but the charts failed to reveal a story of cause and effect, of the associative pattern between colder temperatures and increased incidence of O-ring failure.

“Get your audience out of the puzzle-solving business.”

                                                                     – Edward Tufte

Clarity, Causation and Story

To illustrate how good design may have compelled a different response from the NASA decision-makers, Edward Tufte’s redesign of that same NASA engineers’ data into a simple yet clearly designed graphic forcefully conveys the stark causal association between increasingly colder launch-time temperatures and the higher incidence reports of O-ring damage.

O-Ring Damage_Tufte

Tufte’s redesign arranges the NASA O-ring damage data to tell a graphical story played out over temperature range, with consequential, causation-clear failure results. The association (and story) can be discerned within seconds of viewing the graph. Viewing this, it would be hard not to be convinced of the visually obvious.

Tufte illustrates that the engineers and scientists who tried to persuade their superiors to postpone the Challenger flight had the technical expertise and the right data to back their claims. But, unfortunately, the manner in which those engineers visually presented that data did not translate the warning indicators clearly.

Had NASA managers seen the data presented so clearly and precisely as Tufte has visually rendered it, perhaps a sad moment in human history could have been avoided.

Good design is clear thinking made visible.