columbia shuttle

There is a term called “death by Power Point” and it refers to that feeling you feel when you die of boredom when you watch a Power Point presentation that doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon.

Communication is very important and when it’s not effective the consequences can be tragic.

Experts reached the conclusion that a Power Point slide was to blame for the failure of a NASA mission that lead to the death of seven people.

In January of 2003, NASA sent a crew of seven people on the low orbit of Earth aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. The objective was to study the effects of microgravity on the human body. The astronauts were supposed to spend 16 days in space, during which they were going to conduct 80 experiments.

However, just one day after the mission was launched it was clear that something is not right. According to protocol, NASA experts analyzed the footage from the camera installed on the fuel tank of the space shuttle. They noticed that after 82 seconds a piece of isolation foam became loose from the main tank. While the crew was taking off with a speed of 29,000 km / h, the piece of foam hit the frontal edge of the right wing.

Because of the aerodynamic forces, it fell with a speed nine times bigger than that of a bullet. It damaged the thermal protection system built built to protect the Columbia shuttle from the heat caused by reentering the atmosphere. In space, the shuttle was safe, but NASA had no idea how the shuttle will behave once it returns to Earth.

NASA’s options were the following: the agency could have sent another space shuttle to rescue the crew, the astronauts could have exited the shuttle to inspect the gravity of the damages or they could risk reentering Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA engineers held a meeting with Boeing engineers. They came up with a 28 slides Power Point presentation. The data showed that the components of the wing could have coped with the foam impact. The tests were done with pieces of foam 600 times smaller than the one that hit the Columbia shuttle.

After the presentation, the engineers were convinced that they were efficient in communicating the potential risks of reentering atmosphere. On the other hand, NASA understood from the presentation that according to current data, there damages are not serious enough to endanger the lives of the crew.

They decided to allow the Columbia to reenter atmosphere as it was initially planned. On February 1, 2003, Columbia disintegrated after it entered the Earth’s atmosphere. The cause of the accident was obvious: the whole in the left wing caused by the piece of foam. The shuttle overheated until it got disintegrated, killing the entire crew.

Then NASA had to answer a simple question: why the shuttle was allowed to return back to Earth ?

The answer comes from Edward Tufte, a professor at Yale University and communication expert. The problem was – basically – the Power Point presentation provided by Boeing’s engineers, precisely, one slide of the presentation.

The professor reached the conclusion that the way Boeing chose to showcase the the problem was wrong and he identified many communications errors.

The slide that lead to the death of the seven astronauts is this:


First of all, the name of the slide was much too comforting. The most important message was lost in translation. The slide suggested that the shuttle could withstand the trip back home.

Secondly, the information was organized with the help of bullet points. Still, they were not in the order of the importance, which made it difficult for NASA to identify the vital information. Also, the slide had too much text and the terms were vague.

A report made by NASA after the accident mentions that NASA has indeed relied on the Power Point presentation instead of properly analyzing the technical documents.


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