Last year at a CHI+MED project get-together I took along a DVD of a lovely film called The Dish, which I highly recommend. It’s about the 1969 landing on the Moon and how the Australian Parkes Observatory radio telescope (the ‘dish’) was a key player in relaying around the world the television signals received from an antenna on the lunar (moon landing) module as Neil Armstrong descended to the Moon’s surface.
Although a part-fictional account, and a funny one, the film is packed with plenty of ‘mild peril’ in which the ground-based dish-wrangling protagonists have to contend with rules and regulations from NASA, visiting busybodies, and technical and electrical failures (including a loss of the tracking signal that tells them where the astronauts are), and all with a fantastic soundtrack.
I took the film with me solely because I like it and thought others would enjoy it and, somewhat embarrassingly, hadn’t actually spotted that the film has a lot of parallels with some of the work we do on CHI+MED! (In a very different field though – we’re interested in avoiding harm where medical devices are used). The film is full of human-computer interaction, error and avoidance of error, human factors, risk of injury, confusing and irrelevant instructions and risk of project failure.
My keener-eyed boss, Prof Paul Curzon (who thought I’d chosen the film for its CHI+MED relevance) asked us to pick out a few examples from the film of resilience strategies as we packed away, and we had an interesting discussion about what the observatory team did to preserve safety and maintain their work, and what might have been done or avoided that would have prevented things from going wrong.
In one lovely example the team member visiting from NASA (played by Patrick Warburton) is incensed that the Dish co-ordinates, officially supplied by NASA, have been amended without any explanation. A technician (played by Tom Long) admits that he changed them and the head of operations (Sam Neill) asks him “why?”
“…they were wrong.”
“but what about them was wrong?”
“…NASA sent us the coordinates for the Northern Hemisphere… and we’re in the Southern Hemisphere. I can change them back if you like but we’d be pointing in the wrong direction.”
“OK… it might be an idea to tell someone first next time.”
Chatting about it later a few of us realised that there are plenty of examples in other films (such as Apollo 13) and that there’s an Ergonomics / Human Factors Film Festival waiting to happen to show, through film, how errors might be prevented or their effects mitigated.
There’s a nice example of a resilience strategy in Apollo 13. The astronauts’ vessel has been damaged and is leaking oxygen. They’re racing against time to move everything into a backup vessel before ejecting the damaged one, while fighting against the dropping oxygen levels (and rising carbon dioxide levels). If the astronaut in charge of the move presses ‘Eject’ before everyone’s safely in the new vessel there’s a danger that one or more astronauts will be permanently ejected along with it. To protect against this the astronaut, recognising that his brain is going to struggle as carbon dioxide levels rise further, tapes a piece of paper to the Eject button saying “NO!!!” to remind him, as everyone gets more light-headed, not to touch until the last moment.
I suppose the typical sorts of films in this ‘human factors genre’ might be disaster movies, where something’s gone horribly wrong, or drama – where the threat of something going wrong is averted at the last moment – and of course comedy where we all get to laugh at others’ oopses. If you were creating a film festival that highlights some aspects of human factors, error, blame culture etc – what might you include?
13 things that saved Apollo 13 Universe Today (8 April 2010)
This also includes an account of the heroic effort by the ground crew, at Houston, to come up with an innovative way to solve a serious problem. The damaged vessel (the command module) had a carbon dioxide filter with a square fitting whereas the lunar module (about to become the main life support) had filters with round fittings.
The lunar module had only been designed to support two astronauts for a day and a half but now it would be supporting all three astronauts for longer – and there weren’t enough round-fitting filters. Using just what was available on-board the Houston team had to come up with a solution to fit a square filter into the round hole… (they did it!)
Suggestions coming in after this post was published