On the 28th of January 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded and seven astronauts died due to the erosion of two O-rings. These rings lost resiliency because the launch happened on a very cold day.
On the previous day, after seeing the weather forecast for launch day, the space shuttle engineers, responsible for its construction, advised the responsible agency, NASA, to postpone the event.
These engineers had several indicators that the launch could go wrong: history of O-ring deterioration on previous launches, the physics of resiliency, and other experimental data. All this information was faxed to NASA in 13 tables.
Although it was the only cancelling recommendation in twelve years, NASA officials were quite surprised, they pointed several flaws on the presented tables and suggested a reconsideration.
And it was reconsidered.
And in the next morning, the Challenger space shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launch, due to the low temperatures affecting the O-rings.
Tufte enumerates several mistakes on those 13 tables. Some had no ID and it was hard to track the responsability of who made the observation, sometimes the same shuttle had three different names. We can see some examples on the images below. They are note very clear about the already existent erosion on the O-rings under low temperatures.
At a given time, NASA officials and engineers were focusing not on the erosion data but on the blow-by data. They’ve noticed that blow-by happened on the day with the highest temperature, just like it happened on the day with the lowest. The blow-by data were irrelevant in this case, and they’ve changed the focus of attention that should’ve been given to other crticial elements.
These 13 tables didn’t manage to avoid launch, but who made them was right: They were thinking casually, but they were not illustrating casually.
Tufte gathered the information in the tables and in other reports sent afterwards, and organized them as a function of temperatures, like so:
This way we can clearly see that there are more erosionn cases when temperatures were low.
The same information presented on a matrix
After the incident, presidential commissions and investigation were convened. Their illustrations made the same mistake: they lacked labels, the cause-effect relation is not clear, and they are out of order.
See what would happen if the information was ordered by temperature instead of cronologically.
Would anyone dare to launch the Challenger shuttle if the data was presented differently?
Although we often hear that data speak for themselves, their voices can be soft and sly.
– Frederick Mosteller, Stephen E. Fienberg, and Robert E.K. Rourke, Beginning statistics with Data Analysis (Reading, Massachusetts, 1983), 234