Where science and tech meet creativity.

STS 51L. credit: NASA

Sometime this weekend I looked up at my calendar and realized, I didn’t hear the Space Shuttle Challenger mentioned at all this weekend. Twenty-Two years ago today, during middle school lunch block on the East coast, the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral with a crew of 6 astronauts and one schoolteacher from New Hampshire.

In many schools that day, teachers pulled their children into auditoriums and lined them up in rows before TVs. They were there to be inspired. This crew had a role model for everyone: African-American astronaut and physicist Ronald McNair, female astronaut and engineer Judy Resnik, Japanese-American astronaut and engineer Ellison Onizuka. And for those not wanting a PhD in science, math, engineering or technology, there was the teacher, Christa McAuliffe, showing that space belonged to truly everyone.

On that big-haired 1986 day, the Space Shuttle was still shiny and new, and we had dreams of everyone one day being able to fly into space – no training required. We had evidence it could happen; in1985, Senator Jake Garn had flown for no obvious reason (other than he had the ability to pull enough strings), and now a teacher would fly because NASA saw sending teachers to space as a great way to get kids interested in space.

My school wasn’t one of the ones with the students being sold on space. We were out to recess while the teachers gathered in the library watching. I have to admit that a lot of that day is lost to my memory. I have flashes of key moments – standing in the hall watching through the library window, trying to explain what was going on and being wrong; hearing over the intercom from our very young principle an announcement of what had happened while I was in the computer room; speculating in social studies that it was a terrorist bomb somehow; sitting in algebra with Mrs. Leland trying to explain everything to us, talking as much for herself as she was talking for the benefit of us.

Mrs. Leland (or Lealand – I don’t remember), was my math teacher and a pilot and a science lover. And she was a competitor in the contest to fly into space. And she was a friend of Christa McAuliffe (it was a small part of the country, they were friendly people. I doubt there were any two friendly math and science teachers in New England who weren’t friends.) She talked about the need to dream, and going to space being part of a dream. She talked about astronauts knowing the risk they are taking, and her own struggles with balancing her love of her family and her desire to always be there with them against the potential of dying as an astronaut.

I was in 6th grade. I raced home, asked my mom (who was home and baking), why she didn’t have the TV on, and everything came out of my mouth in a rush. Her first reaction was to tell me to stop lying. But then I had Tom Brokaw on and the age of 24-hour media coverage was started and I was on the sofa watching, watching, watching.

It wasn’t terrorists. It was the cold that killed the 7 men and women on their way to space. Plastic loses its ability to flex and bend in the cold, and that day in Florida it was just below freezing. Each of the sections of the solid rocket boosters are sealed with plastic O-rings that are designed to prevent exhaust from leaking – combusting – through the seams between the segments. When these seals fail, the gas in the rockets has more than one way to go. It can either go out the bottom of the rocket or out through the faulty seal. These O-rings are in many ways no different then the tape you use on the gas connectors for a gas stove or the plastic rings in faucet handles. On that too cold day, the O-ring had contracted and the gas escaped.

Seventy-three seconds into launch that escaping gas caused catastrophic failure. The solid rocket booster caused the orange main tank to explode. The shuttle shattered. The crew cabin fell to the sea as seven men and women struggled to use their training to figure out how to survive. An oxygen tank was turned on. We know they lived through the blast. They, like every other astronaut we’ve lost, had the time to realize – I’m about to die.

But their experience hasn’t deterred people from wanting to become astronauts. Their experience, in front of an entire generation of school children (thirty-somethings out there – where were you when the Challenger exploded?) didn’t cause the children to turn away from space and stop dreaming. NASA had, without meaning to, created a martyr for everyone – in each of those astronauts each of us could, if we wanted to, find someone whose dream we could define in our own new way.

Unfortunately, the tragedy has broken NASA’s dreams of space for everyone. Today we have an astronaut who is a former schoolteacher, but she was fully trained as an astronaut. Today we have another Senator who has flown to space, but I think everyone can agree that John Glenn was an astronaut first, and unlike Garner, was fully trained. No space tourist will fly on a U.S. space shuttle. Period. That is a risky game NASA leaves to the Russians (but didn’t they invent Russian Roulette?)

From January 1986 until September 29, 1988 NASA kept its feet firmly planted on the ground. It was with a cautious 4-day mission with new rules, new checklists, and higher safety standards that they finally returned.

In 1985 NASA launched 9 shuttle missions. In January of 1986, NASA tried to fly two shuttle missions in 2 weeks and would have succeeded had it been warm. Space was easy. Space was fun. It was easier to have 80s hair in zero g. Today, we’re lucky to launch 6 shuttle’s a year, and only five missions are planned for 2008.

Like someone who has had a bad sport’s injury, NASA is now cautious when it puts weight on it injured human-space flight arm. It never knows when the limb might not bear its weight again. Like an aging athlete, it knows that injuries are a little bit easier to get now, and that every time it steps into the field, the probability that something will go wrong goes up.

The Columbia, exploded on February 1, 2003 during re-entry. During launch, it appears, foam had hit the shuttle’s wing, creating a small bit of damage that, like a weakened shoulder waiting to cause a tumbling gymnast to fall horribly off the high bar, weakened the shuttle such that the heat of re-entry would kill the entire crew.

NASA and its space shuttle are old.

The youngest space cowboys of Apollo are still part of NASA. The young grad students of the Sputnik era are today’s NASA primary employees. These folks are no longer thirty-somethings who aren’t particularly afraid of death. These folks are 50 and 60 somethings worried about what the market crash will do to their retirement savings. It is a different place, a different atmosphere, and we live in a different time.

In business, the old guard is regularly replaced by (at some level) the youth and their bright new ideas. IBM was displaced by Microsoft who I suspect will be displaced by Google as the epitome of big, sexy cornerstone technology company (okay, I admit, IBM was never sexy, nor was Bill Gates, but some of his software was). In the US, space is regulated, and until recently their was no way for the next generation of space explorers to tell NASA to move over and make room for the new kid on the block and his shiny new dreams.

But that is changing. While Burt Rutan of SpaceShipOne is way older than my dad, his company and the other commercial space centers on the West Coast are filled with twenty and thirty something dreamers, working on laptops in trailers, trying to re-ignite the space race for everyone. There will be deaths. There will be crashes. But that happens to Boeing’s commercial aircraft too. As we look at plans to potentially launch even wheelchair bound Steven Hawking, the dream of everyone flying is reopening for the children NASA did succeed in inspiring 22 years ago.

Space belongs to no one and to all of us. Space is untamed and wild. It will just as readily inspire as it will kill. And like some many things waiting to be explored, it is a place that needs to given to the youth who have yet to realize that boundaries, danger, and even death are reasons to stop dreaming big dreams.

Move over Sputnik-generation. You’ve given us good role models. Now you need to let the young live their dreams.