On the morning of January 28, 1986, despite concerns within NASA and among others working on the launch that the weather was too cold, the shuttle Challenger blasted off. Seventy-three seconds later, it broke apart in long, grotesque fingers of white smoke in the sky above Cape Canaveral, Florida. …
It was supposed to be one of the greatest achievements in the history of the United States space program.
A civilian—a schoolteacher, an emissary of the hope for tomorrow—was going to space. Christa McAuliffe, a thirty-seven-year-old mother of two from Concord, New Hampshire, had been selected from eleven thousand entrants to NASA’s Teacher in Space contest. She became a symbol of optimism and progress amid Cold War tension. And the rest of the shuttle crew was itself a representation of the strength of American society: Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael Smith, and Commander Dick Scobee. Two women, one of them Jewish. An African- American. An Asian-American. They were the most diverse group of astronauts NASA ever assembled.
So opens “An Oral History Of The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster,” published by the magazine Popular Mechanics in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the immense tragedy that traumatized American society. For the piece, Margaret Lazarus Dean interviewed a couple dozen people who were closely related to the Challenger mission. The long, dramatic recordings take us to the NASA Space Center, to the White House, to the meetings of the Investigation commission and into Concord High School classrooms. But the title’s subheading paints its own picture: “No! No! No! They don’t mean the shuttle! They don’t mean the shuttle!”
It’s not there by coincidence.
The Challenger’s launch was originally scheduled for January 22, but it was delayed several times because of bad weather and technical problems. Because of the level of technology in the ‘80s frequent delay were considered normal. But tension was growing at the Florida Space Center. The tension finally began to ease on January 28, when NASA announced that this would be the day of the launch, and the crew of Challenger was happy to take off. It was chilly on that morning – around 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 C), far below the average 53 F typically expected during shuttle launches.
“The engineers from Morton Thiokol had raised holy hell the night before the launch. And they were right. The concern about the joint sealing was not new. They had been working this problem for years, and they hadn’t fixed it yet. Engineers were saying, ‘You can’t fly in these conditions.’ But then NASA kept waiving the launch constraint from flight to flight. It’s like Richard Feynman said, ‘That’s like playing Russian roulette. Sooner or later it was going to get you.’ And that’s exactly what happened,” Randy Kehrli – a member of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident – told Lazarus Dean.
The problem was the resiliency of O-rings against the change of temperature. They would become stiff if they got too cold, causing leaks in the rocket boosters. In speaking with Lazarus Dean, Donald Kutyna, an Air Force general and Rogers Commission member, confirmed the existence of a document that proved that the engineers knew about the O-rings and the possible leaks. This was exactly what happened to Challenger. But that piece of evidence was never shown to the Commission because the investigators wanted to protect the people at NASA who gave it to them. They could all get fired.
The conclusion of the Commission, according to Kehrli, was not that the risk was cold, intentional calculation on NASA’s part. “I think it was a flaw in the decision-making structure of NASA. I think there were some incorrect judgments, but they were judgments. It might have been negligence. It probably was negligence. But in terms of criminal, cold, calculated intent, I don’t think there was any of that,” he said.
There are many previously unknown details about the Challenger explosion in those interviews. We did not know until now, for example, that it took several minutes for the seven astronauts to die. Their bodies were only found six weeks after the explosion, in the Challenger‘s cabin at the bottom of the ocean. As NBC reported:
The cabin wreckage was so twisted and tangled, sharp edges jutting everywhere like knife points, that the divers demanded the wreckage itself be hauled to the surface and the operation continued on deck.
The crew, the NASA teams and the astronauts overseeing the operation stood silently on the USS Preserver recovery ship as a crane lifted the wreckage from the sea. Every step possible to render respect and honor to the human remains was taken.
The salvage operations proceeded normally until the steel cables on the ocean bottom tugged at another section of Challenger’s middeck. At first the weight and mass seemed too great for the hoisting system. Slowly, painfully, the cables pulled the unseen wreckage from the bottom. Then the cables drew the load to the surface. Divers in the water, and everyone on deck, froze where they were.
A blue astronaut jumpsuit bobbed to the surface, turned slowly and then disappeared again within the sea.
What seemed liked minutes passed, in reality only seconds of time. Divers and sailors stood stunned as they realized what had happened. They had found — and just as quickly lost — astronaut Gregory Jarvis. Immediately the divers went deep again, beginning a frantic search for the last astronaut of Challenger, a frustrating search that would not end for another five weeks.
There is another incredible detail in this tragic story: it was generally assumed that part of the mistake NASA committed with the Challenger was due to negligence in thinking of the shuttle as a cargo plane, though it was really still an experimental program. NASA was wrong in thinking that the shuttle launch was routine.
After the terrible accident, the shuttle program was suspended for two and a half years, coming back in 1988 with much smaller ambitions. It worked well until 2003, “when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry, killing all seven crew members. Noting that ‘the causes of the institutional failure responsible for Challenger have not been fixed,’ the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended the shuttle be allowed to fly until the International Space Station was complete, then be either recertified or retired. In 2011, NASA sent up a shuttle for the last time.”
Watching this tragedy from afar, one remembers a smoke. The desperate faces of those watching from Earth. Those seven people who died for adventure in that small, flying matchbox. Now, 30 years later, reading this story on American soil, as I start to understand how this country breathes, I realize that the burning of the Challenger must have been, in some ways, a more difficult experience than 9/11, even. Why? Because it was the end of a dream. Because the burning of Challenger was the end of a decade when everything was possible. For many other countries, too – not only for the U.S. – the ‘80s were an era of extreme audacity and optimism. NASA was part of that optimism – it wanted to be the first to step into the future.
Ryan Faith writes in how “How the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Changed America’s Romance With Space”:
NASA tried so very, very hard to live up to those hopes and aspirations, launching Shuttles as fast as it could manage — nine Shuttle missions in the year before the Challenger disaster, in fact. At the time, all kinds of civilians had blasted off: payload specialists (industrial astronauts!), military payload specialists, and congressmen. A second shuttle launch site was under construction in California to allow the shuttle to orbit the planet from pole to pole, rather than around the equator. Interplanetary robotic missions launched from the Shuttle’s cargo bay were in the offing, and NASA was developing a potentially booming satellite repair business.
The Teacher in Space program, announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, was another major step. The idea was for a teacher to be selected from among thousands of applicants to fly on the Challenger and deliver two 15-minute teaching lessons from space. Kids across the US spent weeks prepping for this big national moment in science education. Christa McAuliffe, who taught social studies at a high school in New Hampshire, could have been anyone’s teacher.
A lesson like this, coming from outer space, is almost equal to the ideas presented by David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. “The Challenger disaster brought a high-flying part of the American psyche back down to Earth, and it’s unclear if, when, or how that will ever change,” Ryan Faith concludes in Vice. In 1986, America lost its spacial innocence, while in September 2001, it became a defensive, conservative country. I find Richard Beck’s description of this process in his essay “We Can Keep the American People Safe” to be extremely appropriate. The piece opens with David Foster Wallace’s provocative proposal that America should call the people who died in 9/11 attack “democratic martyrs” rather than victims of terrorism. Beck skillfully describes the dangers of the paralysis of American society, closing itself into a sort of protective hull of paranoid defense:
If the political system’s myopic focus on safety induces a kind of paralysis in terms of policy, I think it also cultivates a feeling of neurotic claustrophobia on the level of individual experience. For the last fifteen years, I have been told over and over that my experiences of not feeling threatened by terrorists, of not once worrying that I or someone I cared for was going to be killed in my home country by a fundamentalist with a vest or a gun, have been false. I’ve been told this even though the statistics convincingly demonstrate that my non-apprehension of danger is correct. Since September 11, forty-five people have been killed by violent jihadist attacks in the United States. That’s three people every year. Televisions kill more than that each year by falling on people. Cows kill more than that, too. Husbands kill many more Americans than ISIS. These statistics can seem glib, and they’re certainly fodder for left-wing listicles on the internet, but they’re also true! If you include those who were killed on September 11 itself, a one-time, extraordinary event, the number rises to roughly two hundred people per year, the same number of Americans who are killed each year by failing to come to a full stop at a stop sign. Try to imagine a decade and a half in which the country’s politics completely reorganized itself around getting people to make full and complete stops.
I do not think that exploration is at a complete stop. But such self-indulgent, introverted policies as we have seen are worrisome for a country like the United States – a country that used to have big dreams.