Category Archives: Space Shuttle

The PowerPoint slide that brought down a Space Shuttle

This is a story about the evils of PowerPoint. It was first told by Edward Tufte, the most brilliant mind alive on information design, whom a friend of mine once described as “the voice of God criticizing mankind.” Tufte wrote the book on graphics theory, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information — and in one of his most intriguing side riffs has lambasted PowerPoint for being a boil on human communication.

Tufte has explained how one horrible PowerPoint slide led to the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia explosion — or more accurately, the horrible bullet structure PowerPoint gives us caused the disaster. The problem is PowerPoint encourages writers to use clipped jargon that is hard to understand — and if the point fails, bad decisions get made. As you likely recall, Columbia did blow up on re-entry, after a large piece of foam broke off during launch and damaged the edge of a wing. Before the Columbia accident, foam had crumbled off of many other shuttles during launches, so an internal report was crucial in determining how much risk the foam presented. Would it be a lot of foam? And could it hit the shuttle elsewhere with a lot of force?

Alas, the internal NASA report was presented in PowerPoint.

The NASA slide below has a series of nested bullet points that start out with a blase headline about “conservatism” — sounds OK, right? — overuses the word “significantly” until it doesn’t mean much, and then at the very bottom buries the main point that foam debris that falls off and could hit the shuttle on launch is, ahem, 640 times larger than previously estimated. If the truncated phrase “Volume of ramp” had been expanded to read “estimated volume of foam debris that hit wing,” and the headline made punchier saying “risk is 640 times greater than predicted in prior safety estimates!”, executives in the room might have sat up and gone, holy shit, this entire shuttle could blow if we don’t fix this.

They didn’t, because the risk was a fourth-level sub-bullet in PowerPoint.

Tufte’s point is that PowerPoint mimics the hierarchical structure of big business organizations, which is a bad way to communicate. Information is sliced into logical bits and truncated to the point of unclarity; as the information is passed up through an org structure, slides are deleted until only a brief summary remains. Context is lost; key points disappear; the narrative is destroyed. Or in this case, the astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia died.

What does Tufte recommend? Give people in meetings a short written report, that they digest as the meeting begins. Then talk, talk, about the real issues.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Originally posted on Google+.

Farewell, dear Shuttle: Why consumers of technology are daft

Technology is running in reverse.

First we gave up CDs, which back in the 1980s offered crystal-clear, concert-quality sound, for compressed MP3s that mute music with a strangled buzz. Then we stopped using film, which had resolution so fine we could turn snapshots into giant wall posters, for cell phone cameras that produce pixelated images enshrouded in bloody fog. Then we began swapping big-screen computers with comfortable keypads for little plastic, breakable mobile devices where one has to type with two thumbs.

And now we have YouTube — a brilliant video leap forward in which we can watch 4 1/2 by 3 1/2-inch grainy films produced by drunken college students.

So. Technology is getting worse, and now the horror sets in. NASA is ditching the Space Shuttle in 2010 for — we’re so upset we can hardly type it — a rocket with a capsule on top. This has been coming for years; talk of retirement surfaced soon after the Challenger accident in 2003. But damn if the new rocket doesn’t look like a 1960s moon launch.

The Shuttle was what technology is supposed to be about. Slick. Sexy. Reusable ships that soared to heaven and back, igniting imagination with double-delta wings and heat shields like something out of Star Wars, a design that a 5th-grader might dream up. The thrust structure was made from titanium, the engine cranked up to 104%, and when spent, the Shuttle could piggyback home on a Boeing 747, sort of a, look, I’m too sated from space travel to bother finale. The Shuttle made outer space seem within reach, a there-and-back again adventure, with parts that were recycled for a little green gift to Mother Earth.

But we blew it. Viewers stopped tuning in for live Shuttle launches, ratings went down, so NASA has stuck us with the Orion, above. Ick.

Maybe technology is running backward because we’ve all grown a bit selfish. Rather than share movie experiences on gigantic screens, we want secret video in little boxes from YouTube. Instead of socializing in concert halls, we demand earbuds that pipe in private iTunes.

If this trend continues, humans will probably stop talking to each other with rich facial expressions and vocal nuances altogether and instead take up lower-resolution alternatives, perhaps typing little messages on tiny keyboards and posting them in small windows for others to come find.

Oh, never mind.