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Zenit-3SL explosion
A Zenit-3SL rocket explodes on its floating launch platform—an incident initally described as an “anomaly”—on January 30th. (credit: Sea Launch)

I write sins, not tragedies

Maybe you heard about Sea Launch’s anomaly. Maybe you saw the explosion…

That’s what Sea Launch called it in an official statement, an anomaly: “The Sea Launch Zenit-3SL vehicle, carrying the NSS-8 satellite, experienced an anomaly today during launch operations. Sea Launch will establish a Failure Review Oversight Board to determine the root cause of this anomaly.”

If you hadn’t seen the launch video, or the video capture of the fireball, you might have assumed that this was a small problem, rather than the spectacular accident it was. Of course, it’s also worth noting that while they were broadcasting the launch globally on a weblink, they immediately cut the video when the explosion occurred. If they had not been running the video, the general public might never have seen the anomaly at all.

Sea Launch’s statement can now live in infamy, along with other attempts to sugarcoat failure. But it will never surpass the greatest euphemism for a destroyed rocket of all time, the June 1996 statement released by the European Space Agency when its Ariane-5 rocket blew up. Even if you’re not fond of reading bland press releases, this one is a jaw-dropper: “The first Ariane-5 flight did not result in validation of Europe's new launcher.”

If you hadn’t seen the launch video, or the video capture of the fireball, you might have assumed that this was a small problem, rather than the spectacular accident it was.

The full statement’s a classic: 239 words and not once does it say “failure,” or “explosion,” or “destroyed,” or mention how much money was lost in the fireball. Not once does it mention that the Cluster satellite payload was lost, and along with it the opportunity for important solar physics science—an opportunity that was not realized until many years later. Instead, ESA announced that they would conduct an “inquiry” into what they called an “incident” that “did not result in validation” of the launch vehicle, as if somebody forgot to fill the tank with fuel and the rocket simply did not launch.

Now to be fair, when rockets fail they always fail spectacularly. There’s no way for them to not fail spectacularly. At the very least they fall out of the sky, even if that happens far out of sight of land. And every loss costs tens of millions of dollars. Any major flight malfunction has serious consequences and there is no way to positively spin the failure.

But why are these press releases so blandly euphemistic when describing explosions that they essentially seem like lies? The answer may surprise you.

One would suspect that these statements represent bad bureaucratic impulses to try and spin the story so that failure is not reported as failure. Public relations officers, after all, are paid to make the company look good, to direct your attention to the pretty flowers in the staterooms as the Titanic slips underneath the waves, or to talk about positive fourth quarter earnings even as the company’s CEO goes to jail.

However, the reality is that the field of “crisis communications” has actually made great strides in the past decade or so. According to a professor who teaches a course in the subject at a large university, many organizations have learned a lot in the past few years about the dangers of mishandling a bad situation. There are numerous examples of companies doing things right—like Tylenol handling a poisoning scare in the 1980s—to companies doing things dreadfully wrong—like Firestone tires denying that their tires could cause blowouts and vehicle rollovers in 2000. (Witness that you can still buy Tylenol on store shelves, but Firestone took a major hit.) The rule that many major companies and organizations try to follow is this: the truth is going to get out, eventually, and trying to cover it up just leads to suspicion and further investigation by the press. Shareholders, the general public, and potential customers have already lost some faith in the institution after the incident, and the important thing is to limit further damage.

According to the professor, the worst possible initial response to a disaster like a rocket explosion is a “no comment” statement, because it looks like the company is either totally unprepared or hiding something. For this reason, companies and large organizations have pre-written statements intended to cover a wide array of possible events. That way they have something that they can simply e-mail to reporters or put on their corporate website within hours or even minutes after an event.

The problem in both the Sea Launch and ESA cases was probably a combination of two things: a failure to anticipate specific possible failures, and a poorly-worded statement that provided no room to add language for a specific event. So the Sea Launch statement was pre-written and intended to cover lots of “anomalies”—everything from a fight between two employees in the lunchroom to a rocket exploding on the launch pad. Ideally, the statement should have included a fill-in-the-blank section: “The anomaly resulted in [loss of vehicle/damage to the launch pad/loss of life/etc.].” Of course, there is always a danger in adapting such boilerplate statements in the midst of a crisis, and public affairs officials scurrying to release a statement need to be careful of not repeating the incident depicted in the classic 1979 TV show “WKRP in Cincinnati” when newsman Les Nessman used a boilerplate civil defense warning to alert the populace of tornadoes, substituting the word “tornado” for the word “communist”: “If you see a… tornado invading your community, alert the authorities immediately!”

While this explanation does not exculpate either ESA or Sea Launch for their lame statements, it does explain the wording. The key, according to the professor, is how the organizations respond after the initial statements. Do they try to cover up and obscure, or are they open and honest? In the Ariane-5 case, ESA followed up its initial statement with a second statement two days later, and this one actually was more honest, titled: “Flight 501 failure- first information.”

Sea Launch’s follow-up statement, issued on February 1, is not quite as good. It mentions that the launch was “unsuccessful” and that the payload was lost, but it is less detailed and less honest than the ESA follow-up message. Maybe that is due to differences in the cultures of the two organizations or differences in the specific incidents. Sea Launch’s stockholders and their customers will be watching the company closely to see how it communicates in the future.

In the spaceflight field there is actually a model of how to do things right when it comes to crisis communications: NASA. The space agency has done a relatively good job of handling major incidents and has a detailed set of instructions for what to do in event of a launch accident, including a crisis communications plan in event of a shuttle accident. It was this response plan that the agency put into effect when the Columbia was lost four years ago. The crisis communications plan includes fill-in-the-blank sections to tailor it to specific incidents, including loss of vehicle and loss of life.

In the spaceflight field there is actually a model of how to do things right when it comes to crisis communications: NASA.

Of course, the agency only got good at this after a lot of missteps, most notably the Challenger accident in 1986. And just because NASA has a plan ready does not mean that it cannot still make mistakes. Although there is a danger of looking like you have something to hide, there are also pitfalls with being too open and releasing information that may not be properly checked. If an agency has to retract or amend earlier statements, it starts to look bad. In the case of the Columbia accident, one problem that the agency encountered was that in the early days important shuttle officials were spending so much time conducting public briefings that they were not spending enough time on the investigation itself. Agency officials learned from this and reduced the number of press conferences. Even the most prepared organization is going to have to recalibrate its communications policy over time. For instance, it might hold fewer press conferences, or restrict who speaks to the press so that only those with direct knowledge of the facts do the talking and people with secondhand or speculative knowledge do not.

But in the end, the best policy for organizations involved in spaceflight accidents remains cautious, carefully checked, honesty. The truth may set you free, but as a wag later added, you might not like it very much…