Anomalies and euphemisms

A couple of weeks ago Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two crashed due to a mechanism designed to slow its descent being deployed earlier than intended. US officials are still working to determine the cause of the accident, which killed one pilot and severely injured the other. Also recently, Orbital Science’s Antares carrier rocket exploded a couple of seconds after lift off.

The bland term used to describe both these incidents is anomaly.

This may seem like playing things down a bit, especially as the incidents involve, literally, astronomically expensive pieces of hardware and in this case even more so in view of the fact that one person was killed and another injured. But spaceflight has a tradition of such euphemisms, think Houston, we have a problem.


Part of this stems from a mentality of not wanting to rush to premature conclusions, but is at the same time indicative of the mindset that any situation, even if it is dramatic, can be analyzed, understood and addressed.

Two things struck me about the above. First off, I will take anomaly on board as a euphemism to be employed when things go wrong…

Mark: Ma’m, I am afraid I have to tell you that we seem to have had a bit of an anomaly.

Customer: Anomaly? What do you mean?

Mark: Well, we just bombed the top of the Robinia we were felling through the roof of your car port and have totaled your 380k fully pimped-up Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 Roadster

Customer: Again?! We’ve only just had it sorted out after your last mishapOh dear, Mr. Bridge… I do believe my husband is going to be rather upset.

Mark (mumbling): Beam me up, Scotty!

Anomaly just makes it sound more professional and space-racey.

But jokes aside, I do think that the mentality of assuming that things can be worked through in a rational fashion is interesting. If things start to feel a bit sketchy, let us take the time to analyze what the issues are, assess what means we have to address them – by using different techniques, different tools or machinery or different personnel – and then in response to the problems encountered to develop an alternative work plan. What I like about this approach is that it puts the team on site firmly in the driver’s seat, rather than paralyzed in the headlights of the rapidly approaching car… the inevitability often as not stems from ignoring warning signs that could and should have been recognised and might have prevented the system from failing.

So here we go… being able to write this was actually the reason for this post:

This is really not rocket science, people!

Let’s think a bit more Apollo 13 and a bit less Costa Concordia! Let us take a pro-active attitude towards risk mitigation and not accept accidents and near misses with a sense of fatalistic inevitability.