It took the twenty year anniversary (2006) to bring the first loss of U.S. astronauts in flight back into the public’s consciousness. NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51L) was lost 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, the victim of faulty O-ring seals on its Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), and a broken management and safety culture within NASA. NASA grounded the Shuttle fleet until 1988, at which point Shuttle flights resumed with redesigned SRBs, and a newfound appreciation of the risks of human spaceflight. Did the management and safety culture change? Supposedly, yes, yet 17 years later, we lost Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-107) and her crew during re-entry — the victim of burn-through caused by wing damage sustained during lift-off. On the twentieth anniversary of the loss of Challenger, we again found ourselves with a grounded Space Shuttle program, after the much-publicized and undeniably successful “Return to Flight” mission (STS-114) of Space Shuttle Discovery experienced a similar, though smaller, debris shedding and impact during launch. As a result of dual space tragedies, Discovery’s return to flight involved the first in-flight repair of the Space Shuttle’s thermal protection system (TPS), in a daring multi-pronged extra-vehicular activity (EVA) involving two spacewalking astronauts, the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm (CanadArm), and the International Space Station’s robotic arm.
Spaceflight is inherently risky, just as all great expeditions and endeavors are risky. Astronauts and their families know this, and many of them come from military and test-flight backgrounds — equally, if not moreso, dangerous enterprises. But that doesn’t eliminate NASA’s culpability in each disaster, nor America’s. So often, the American culture and media aren’t linked with the Challenger disaster, and yet they helped create the flawed safety and management culture within NASA in the late 1980’s. Americans had already stopped tuning in to most of the live Space Shuttle launches. Many people viewed space travel as nearly routine an enterprise as commercial airline travel, in an era when commercial aviation wasn’t complicated by things like 9/11. The media and citizens, alike, groused about Shuttle launch delays for weather and “minor” computer glitches. Challenger changed all that, for a time. It took Columbia’s tragic loss in 2003, just minutes from a successful landing at Kennedy Space Center (Florida), to educate the newest generation and remind their elders.
I’ve always been touched by the lives of explorers and pioneers, particularly those of the space-faring variety: Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom (died in the Apollo 1 fire, along with Roger Chafee, and Ed White), Valentina Tereshkova (first woman in space), Sally Ride (first American woman in space), Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe (died aboard Challenger, STS-51L, along with her six crewmates,) and of course, the Columbia crew — an international crew, including Indian scientist Kalpana Chawla and Israeli Air Force pilot Ilan Ramon.
To borrow the words of John F. Kennedy, when he announced the goal of the U.S. to reach the moon within a decade, “…we choose to do (these) things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Spaceflight is hard; I believe elements of it will always be hard. Mankind has much to learn, yet. We learn and adapt, but with each successive step we take, we set our sights on something more challenging in the distance. That is the nature of humanity, and it is a characteristic I hope we never, ever lose.
Bless the explorers, for they help us see the Earth and space as nothing and no one else can. They put men and women, and their creations (like Spirit & Opportunity, and now Mars Curiosity) in places that our ancestors scarcely dreamed possible, and in so doing, open our minds, imaginations, and lives to new possibilities. Explorers take risks so that others may dream and excel. Let’s keep those dreams alive!
I was 12 years old when the Challenger disaster occurred. I attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, over one year after the tragedy, in August 1987.
Related: NASA’s Day of Remembrance (February 1, annually)