Thursday, January 28, 2010

January 28, 1986


Twenty-four years ago today, a senseless and preventable accident claimed the lives of of seven brilliant and brave human beings. The loss of Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe are the most tragic result of the Challenger disaster, and we must never lose sight of that.

But something else died that day with the Challenger and her crew and even as an impressionable seven-year-old I sensed it. Ever since it became clear that manned spaceflight would one day be possible, futurists and science fiction writers delighted us with tales of a time when a trip into space was every bit as routine as a ride in a Chevy. And on that clear day in January 1986, it seemed as though those dreams were finally starting to come true. Regular, uneventful shuttle flights had certainly given us the idea that spaceflight had become a routine endeavor, and the inclusion of a high school teacher on a space mission seemed like a logical development. One day soon, I thought, anyone might be able to take a ride on the Space Shuttle!

This idea was not limited to my seven-year-old brain, however. Take a look at this scene from EPCOT Center’s Horizons:

horizons 14

What’s that vehicle delivering that 21st century family to their new home on the Brava Centuari space station? It’s the Space Shuttle! Very little of Horizons was grounded in the “now”. The places the characters lived, the technology they used, even the clothes they wore bore more resemblance to the Star Trek films of the 1980s than they did to anything in the real world. The Space Shuttle (seen in the scene above and also in the background of another space scene) was the only piece of the Horizons future that we had right now, and its very existence (and successful, routine operation) was an assurance that space colonies and floating cities lay not too far off.

Those dreams evaporated at 11:38 AM on January 28, 1986. We found out the hard way that launching a manned vehicle into orbit is not (and may never be) as relatively safe and easy as flying a jetliner from New York to Los Angeles. The accident exposed longstanding flaws in the way NASA went about its business, and shattered any ideas we may have had about the possibility of living in large space colonies by the turn of the twenty-first century. Worst of all, seven families lost sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, moms, dads, husbands, and wives.

Today we have a more sober, pragmatic view of human spaceflight. The loss of the Columbia in 2003 reminded us that anything can go wrong at any time on a space mission, and the astronauts aren’t really safe until they’re standing on terra firma. The shuttle program is scheduled to end this year, and the International Space Station may be abandoned and deorbited by 2016. There were not, as the Horizons narration suggested, all kinds of valuable resources floating around in near-Earth orbit waiting for us to exploit them. The moon seems to be devoid of any resources that would be worth our while to figure out how to mine, and the asteroids in the belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter would have to be full of cancer-curing magic beans for us to even begin investigating how we might go about mining them.

The fact is that in every life there are hardships and tragedies that force us to let go of childish ideas we once had and grow up. It’s no fun, but that’s the way it is. For my generation, the Challenger disaster was one of those tragedies.



  1. Reading this post leaves me a bit sad. I remember where I was (in clinics in dental school) when the announcement about the Challenger disaster came. I even wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune, which they published, on the subject. (It was mostly about continuing the space program.)

    I hadn't heard that the International Space Station might be decommissioned (right word?) by 2016. Is it just money, or are there technological reasons for this?

    Turn it over to Richard Branson. I bet he finds a way to make it work. :-(

  2. I was born in 89, but have always had a horrified, somber fascination with Challenger. I had always sensed that it was more ideologically damaging than Columbia, but never really knew. Was it naievete or Christa McAuliffe's death that led to disillusionment? I hate the tendency to brand the past as a "simpler time," but was it true in this case?

    Columbia really hit home for me, though, as it was the first spaceflight I truly followed. I was on every day, even asked Col. Husband a question via email (email from space seemed fascinating to an eighth grader in 2003).

    You're right - both disasters were reminders that if we can dream it, that doesn't necessarily mean we can do it. Yet we're so desperate to experience that sort of unbridled optimism/Disney magic that we'll pay thousands upon thousands and forgo a vacation by the ocean so we can feel reaffirmed rather than relaxed.

  3. Sad to hear such disasters happen. And I know that there's proof that for one good thing, there are obstacles, no matter how minor or tragic they are.

    But in my view, all I can say is that no matter when, or how, amongst a small percentage amongst tragedies, success might one day follow.


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