The PowerPoint Slide that Killed 7 Astronauts.

This is the story of how a PowerPoint presentation caused the death of 7 astronauts.

82 seconds into the launch, witnesses a piece of spray on foam insulation (SOFI) dropped from the attachment of the shuttle to its external fuel tank. When the speed reaches 28 968 Km per hour, the piece of foam collided with the tile on the outer edge of the left wing of the shuttle.

There is no way to know the definite damage done to the wing by this foam. The foam did damage the edge of the wing that is crucial during launch and re-entry to protect the shuttle from the extreme heat. The shuttle was safe to operate and function in space but NASA did not know what re-entry would do to it. There were three options:

  1. Perform spacewalk to inspect the hull.
  2. Another Space Shuttle is launched by NASA to take home the crews.
  3. Risk the re-entry.

Engineers of Boeing Corporation presented to NASA officials three reports, a total 28 slides. One of which is displayed below.

The presentation showed a data that explained that the shuttle has been tested to be able to tolerate being hit by a foam 600 times smaller than the one they are facing right now.

The engineers felt that they have delivered enough information for the NASA officials to make the right decision. NASA felt that the data showed a non-fatal damage. They decided to proceed with the re-entry.

Columbia was scheduled to land at 0916 (EST) on February 1st 2003. Before 0900 on that day, just 61 170 metres above Dallas, Columbia is entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Going at speed 18 bigger that the speed of sound with shuttle’s left wing’s temperature reading at exceedingly high, communication with the Columbia’s crew were soon lost. At 0912, ground control received reports from local residents near Dallas that they had seen the shuttle disintegrating in the air. We lost Columbia together with seven of her crew.

NASA put the shuttle program on lock down and grounded for two years. Thorough investigation were conducted. It was then made clear that the accident was caused by a overheat on the wing that caused the shuttle to disintegrate.

That raised another question. Why did the NASA officials decided to proceed with the re-entry after being fed the information on the conditions?

Edward Tufte, a Professor at Yale University and expert in communication reviewed the slideshow the Boeing engineers had given NASA. His findings were brilliant and profound.

The slide did not deliver the intensity of the danger that they are facing. Too much text, multiple indented points, multiple size fonts, and too much jargon. A typical slide made in PowerPoint. If they mentioned “the foam that strike was 600 times bigger than our tests and predictions”. Maybe that would have opened some eyes.

Are people using PowerPoint correctly?

There are many people that use PowerPoint to write an ‘article’. It is a very common thing in office that people send PowerPoint slides to their colleague to inform them of the new product or to share with them your new progress report. Even your boss would ask you to put it in a PowerPoint so that others can have it and it can be shared and people can have it as a note later.

Is PowerPoint at fault?

They have so much to improve. How can a tool for visual aid is used to deliver a report and a note? PowerPoint is designed to create a visual aid, but the default setting made it impossible. You can see that the title is always bigger in default.

Indent will make the point that was indented to be less important as the font became smaller. Not many actually bother to override the default formatting to make their own format. This is due to when they want to change to another presentation design, no need to do much adjustments.

You can and definitely should override the default formatting. The default for PowerPoint can be considered as pointless because the correct way to do a presentation is to have it as a visual aid and you do the talking. Take an example of this presentation guru, Steve Job.

PowerPoint was created and designed under the assumption that the presenter wrote some points on the slides then delivers the explanation to complement the missing gap thus delivering the information perfectly. However, this is rarely the case for few reasons:

  1. Presenter tends to write a full sentence of the points that they are trying to send. The audience will notice that they are delivering the same thing and they will either ignore the speaker or the slide.
  2. Presenters usually do the presentation without full, well-timed and analyzed rehearsal. This leads to them reading from the slide. Missing some explanation that was not included in the slide.

This might be the reason the question and answer session after every presentation is often about the slide and the repetition of the explanation in a less formal manner.

HOW TO FIX THIS?

Firstly, lets not disregard that none of the engineers nor the decision makers involved in that situation wanted the disaster to happen. The engineers made the PowerPoint slide and did the presentation, but the listeners should be a smart consumer of the presentation. Top-level decision makers of NASA should be better at listening and knowing what lies between the lines.

Less is More

Having less words per slide allows the audience to give more attention to you. It also makes you work really hard in making sure that you deliver the whole cart of thoughts from your mind to your listeners’.

Highlights on the Points

Highlighting the points mentioned in the slide helps divert the attention of the audience to that part of the slide. It stresses the importance of the slide.

Conclusion to the Presentation

Giving a conclusion lands a final blow as a reminder to the audience what is the essence of the presentation. Even those who didn’t listen very well to the presentation will get the gist of the what the presenter is trying to tell.

In a situation where you are presenting the risks and possibilities of what can happen, it will be helpful if you can remind the listeners of the impacts of every possible decision that they make.

This incident is definitely one of the darkest days in the history of NASA. It taught everyone to be more careful in using the tools and decision makers to be more thorough in assessing the risks and impacts of their decisions.

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