While going to college, I lived with my grandmother. There were others visiting that day, but I was downstairs in my room. People told me that the Shuttle launch was coming up, so I came upstairs to watch. That is how I remember it.
I’d dreampt of a Shuttle crash once…an event that never happened…where the shuttle left the pad, did a 180, and plowed into the ground behind the Vehicle Assembly Building. The dream was very realistic, complete with the huge explosion. I actually did something like that last year with the shuttle, accidentally, in the Orbiter 2010 simulator. But I digress.
The real thing, when Challenger exploded, felt for a moment like that, like it wasn’t real. Then a few seconds later the reality hit. It wasn’t at all survivable and seven people had just died.
It didn’t anger me much. It saddened me deeply, but after the results of the investigation were released I felt like launch cadence had gotten in the way of safety, and that wrong choices were made in the face of expert dissent. I felt like it was a natural growing-pains thing though. Rocket science is hard to do and very dangerous and everyone involved in it knows that, but there is also a learning curve. Heroes were made that day, as they are every day that humans do extraordinary things. Humanity needs its heroes, but martyrs were made that day too. That was how I viewed the victims of the Challenger accident.
It was the Columbia disaster that angered me. I felt like that accident could have been avoided, like those people shouldn’t have died. I remembered, in the very earliest days of the Shuttle Program, an expert saying on camera that if leading-edge tiles were ever damaged the orbiter would be destroyed on reentry. There were no unknowns, no hidden flaws, no accidental gotchas. I viewed, and still view, those deaths as a waste and for the first and only time in my life I was deeply disappointed in NASA.
Challenger humbled us as a nation. She reminded us of the frailty of flesh and that our processes, like those O-Ring design, can have deadly hidden cracks in them. It matured our space program in a way that only a catastrophe can. The Shuttles were good, and played a critical role in our growth as a species, but it increasingly became apparent to me that they were premadonnas and that spaceflight shouldn’t have to be quite that hard.
Challenger Accident documentary on The History Channel. http://www.history.com/topics/challenger-disaster/videos/engineering-disasters—challenger#
I won’t harp further on the lessons learned. I will just honor the Challenger crew for what they were, brave pioneers, and end this post with a nice poem that is frequently used in reference to such events as this…
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.