Visual Rhetoric Rewind: “In the shadow of grief”

It’s a shame that the week I just didn’t get around to my blog post had one of the most personally fascinating articles of the semester.

One of the cruelties of memory is that you can’t always be sure that what you think you recall is what actually happened to you. This is especially true of well-known and retold tragedies, so I can be forgiven for my uncertainty in the case of the Challenger disaster. At six and a half, my first-grader recall is suspect, but I seem to remember watching the launch being shown live in class because of Christa McAuliffe’s participation in the mission, and being unsure what happened when the shuttle disappeared in a white and orange puff on the staticy CRT television that had been wheeled into the classroom. I think I also remember the second grade teacher, Ms. Barnes, jumping up to switch the TV off a moment later. Of course, these could be acquired memories, a side effect of countless testimonials and replays I’ve seen in the many years since Challenger’s explosion. Such is always a possibility of any publically observed tragedy. Like with the Kennedy assassination, the September 11th attacks, or the loss of Columbia almost two decades later, public consciousness blends and borrows until the lines between individual memories blur.

I’ve been fascinated with space for as long as I can remember, and no surprise, the Challenger disaster has always been a particular curiosity. The Edward Tufte article so effectively documented the exact causes and missed opportunities of the shuttle’s explosion, it had the unusual effect of reminding me of another moment when the visual presentation of crucial information lifted the veil of understanding – and that moment was also in relation to Challenger. It wasn’t until sometime a few years before reading Tufte that I really understood what happened to Challenger. That an O-ring had been too cold and allowed fuel to breach the hull of a solid rocket booster was always an abstract concept to me, if not particularly difficult to grasp. It wasn’t until I saw a cross section similar to that of Tufte’s that I saw how critical the O-ring was in tightly sealing the booster, and how even a microscopic gap caused by the flexing of the joint due to stress of launch was enough for a thin stream of propellant to leak past the still cold and rigid O-rings, ignite in the engine outside, and trace back into the tank of the rocket.

Where Tufte’s piece excels is in the marriage of the visual and the verbal. Within three paragraphs, the sequence of mismanagement that lead directly to the explosion is laid out clear and uncomplicated, explaining that NASA had every opportunity to delay the launch for exactly the concern that ended up destroying the shuttle: “Thus the exact cause of the accident was intensely debated during the evening before the launch. That is, for hours, the rocket engineers and managers consider the question: Will the rubber O-rings fail catastrophically tomorrow because of the cold weather? … That morning, the Challenger blew up 73 seconds after its rockets were ignited” (39). Set across the fold from the starkly effective graphic breakdown of the SRB’s failure, this history seems so dead simple in hindsight. The explicit breakdown of the written account, when combined with the perfect imagery in supplement, is so supremely effective at communicating the nature of the disaster, it makes the bureaucratic failure of not scrubbing the launch dumbfounding.

All that we can do – we who look backward with this perfect explanation of what did happen in the past instead of the abstract what could happen in the future ­– is to shake our heads and admit that we weren’t there. Perhaps Challenger was unavoidable because no one can have this perfect dissection of their choices as they make them. At least those in similar positions in the future have the benefit of such clearly defined history to draw from. The shuttles have all been retired, but the costly lesson of Challenger lives on thanks to the precise, documented, visual history by the likes of Edward Tufte, giving me much a far better account than I could ever hope to dredge from my six-year-old self’s imperfect memory.

Note: this reading reminds me of a recent arstechnica article on a the Columbia disaster. Worth a (long) read, and also rich in effective visuals to enhance understanding.


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