Challenger: 25 Years Later
"On this date in 1986, the complacency that is so commonplace in our society had almost completely engulfed the space shuttle. The only thing getting Challenger a good bit of attention was the fact that a school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was on board and would be beaming back lessons for a worldwide classroom.
But this bit of notoriety wasn’t enough to prompt the major networks to interrupt programming, as had been done in the earlier days of the space shuttle program, for the shuttle’s launch. CNN, as I recall, was live on the air with the launch.
I was a 10th grader at the time, and even inside a school, with a teacher aboard what was one of the greatest technical achievements of our age, televisions were not set up in every classroom.
All of that was about to change.
Five years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the disaster, I talked about that day in school, and how I’d happened to make a joke shortly before the Challenger exploded that only added to the shock of what happened. Televisions were quickly set up in my school’s library where we all gathered to watch coverage of the disaster.
Then and now, I think of the eerie silence shortly after the fateful words, “Roger, go with throttle up” and the resulting fireball. Just after those final words from the crew, a NASA spokesman is still narrating the trajectory of the ship, not yet aware of what has happened. After a pause, during which he clearly had seen a monitor showing the picture, he reported that experts were accessing the situation and that there had obviously been a “major malfunction,” and everyone went silent for a few moments.
As the shot of the trail of the solid rocket boosters widened out to show their now-independent paths, then tilted down to show fragments of the ship falling to earth, there was a low mournful-sounding feedback in that footage. It’s an odd thing to remember, but it still sticks with me a quarter century later.
Even though no one was explaining anything with words, something in that sound made the enormity of what had happened all too clear."
I had a comment, just like I always do:
"I turned 18 two days before. That day, the school put a television in my class and we all watched Challenger launch. I have watched every launch - the late 1960s and early 1970s ones obviously as news footage after the fact as I was born in 1968. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE space travel - and I always have.
As we watched it launch, and then reach the blue sky, and it suddenly bloomed into three pillars of smoke, I said, "Oh, my god..." because I knew something was wrong. As the news announcers realised something was wrong, I started to cry. I still remember it all perfectly.
Granted, no American has been lost in space in the long history of United States' NASA, but plenty died either in the atmosphere, or on Terra - such as the Apollo 1 launch pad (known as the "plugs-out") test. That fire was caused by a short in one of the switches and raged instantly (17 seconds) due to 100% oxygen used in capsules at that time. There had been debate about the amount of velcro and nylon netting used in the capsule as well. The reason the three astronauts - Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, couldn't exit was the hatch did not have a blow-out safety and it jammed. This happened one year and one day before I was born. Maybe they should not launch anything in January. It seems to not work out well...
The Columbia had a compromised heat shield and that is fatal. Re-entry is a hot prospect - the ship heats up to a lethal 3,000 degrees until it slows down to a gentle speed. One teeny missing piece of the heat shield is all one needs to not make it back. I believe the Columbia was missing a rather sizable piece. That launched 16 January 2003. I'm just sayin'...
Let's not get into Apollo 13 and the disaster that very nearly was.
But an American has never died IN SPACE. I'm not sure that this is a bragging point now."