Remembering the Space Shuttle Challenger

Posted By Pamela on Jan 28, 2008 | 9 comments

ksc-86pc-0081.jpgSometime 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. (Image: STS-51L, the last flight of the Challenger (NASA))

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 intercom 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 dieing 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 lieing. 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 then 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 exploded. 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, OMG, 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 cautions, 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 man-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 too 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.


  1. thank you, Pam.

  2. I have similar memories of watching through the window of my middle school library at the TV they had turned on for coverage of the disaster. It was the first time I realized the danger of space exploration (I was only 3 months old when the last Apollo mission left the moon). Quite a shock. Up till then, I had dreamed of being an astronaut. After Challenger, that idea lost its luster.

    By the time I was old enough to really prep for a career, my interests had moved on to other things anyway, but I’m sure that Challenger had its effect to. I felt that same sick-to-my-stomach feeling when Columbia was lost, too.

    I’m glad that Rutan, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are trying to forge the way for private manned space exploration. I hope that they succeed!

  3. I’ve noticed you changed your website (and feeds) a little bit. By the way, when you said “lieing”, did you mean “lying” as in “to lie about sth.”? Thanks for the post; brings back the sad, harsh truth of things (and this is precisely why I don’t want to go to space unless there’s an extraordinary reason to do so).

  4. It looks like the next era of space travel is going to be by private enterprise – with Rutan’s brains and Branson’s money. Whether anybody gets past the Moon in our lifetimes is another question.

    There’s a short article in Pravda today:

    Gagarin was not first astronaut

    “Gagarin was not the first man to fly to space. Three Soviet pilots died in attempts to conquer space before Gagarin’s famous space flight, …”

    While today’s Pravda is roughly equivalent to the National Enquirer, I have no reason to doubt this story.

    It makes Gagarin’s feat all the more commendable – he surely knew what happened to the first three.

  5. Thanks Pamela, I’d forgotten what I felt like back then. I was in grade 9 then, and I remember being told about it at school as well, and then watching it on the news. I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of it then, but now, as a high school astronomy/physics teacher, I get it. And it’s good to be reminded of what we’ve lost, so that we don’t lose sight of what we might have in the future.

  6. Thank you for reminding us, Pamela. I wasn’t watching that day. Space Shuttle launches had become routine. I was in grad school and someone came into the computer lab and told us. I remember calling my now-husband to be sure he knew much as I called my parents and neighbors on September 11.

    I was at Girl Scout camp when Columbia exploded. That’s how my daughter remembers that camp.

    But if I had the opportunity to be in space, I’d go. It’s dangerous, and we should try to make it safer and not take unreasonable chances. But I can’t look at the stars and not yearn to be out there.

    The scientist in me sees the constellations as somewhat random arrangements of stars from one point of view. But a tiny bit of me wonders whether God arranged something like Orion in a less-crowded part of the sky to beckon us to explore. It’s part of our nature to want to go there.

  7. I’m late to the party again… apparently I’ve been busy.

    I was in the Air Force and stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in January 1986. Vandenberg is the launch site when we want to launch a polar orbiting device because of its position on the left coast. The base had been preparing a launch site for the shuttle, we even had the Enterprise on base a few times for test fittings and to prepare the path from the runway to the launch facility (all the traffic signs were posted very low so the wings of the shuttle would clear them as it was towed across the base).

    We always knew when a launch was scheduled, it was always big news at the base because we knew that one day the Shuttle would launch from Vandenberg. My workmates and I on the telephone system maintenance team always got prior notice for launches of any sort to prevent us from disrupting any of the data circuits used to help monitor the shuttle in flight, circuits which were routed through the wire distribution frame in our office. We had a red light switched on at that frame for launches that basically said “Don’t Touch.” We just called it the Frame Light.

    That fateful day in 1986 I was working on a static problem with an operator’s console. I worked on it from the operators room because the Frame Light was lit and I couldn’t touch or check the wires at the distribution frame. The operators shared their room with the team of analysts that created the work requests for users of the base telephone system. One of the analysts had a radio playing at a moderately low volume.

    Now, the other side of the wall near to the operator position I was working on was the back end of the telephone equipment room. As I worked on the console I could hear a minor alarm on the phone system in the other room – it sounded a bit like the bells on an old fashioned phone. Minor alarms are, appropriately, minor and so I ignored it. Besides, I wasn’t the only technician on duty, there were several other technicians still in the equipment room that would take care of it.

    Only a few seconds after the minor alarm, though, the major alarm sounded. The major alarm sounded quite like a gong being struck once each second. Now I looked up – staring at the wall between me and the telephone room, as if I could see the cause somehow. I wondered out loud what that was. But again, because of the other technicians in the equipment room, I didn’t pay any more attention to it.

    That didn’t last long, however, because only a moment later the critical alarm engaged. This alarm sounds very much like a recess bell at elementary school to call the children back to class. And every bit as loud, but inside a building as it was, it demanded immediate attention. Well this couldn’t be good, I was thinking.

    In fact there was a distinct pattern to this sequence and pacing of the alarms, a pattern that one should never hear in the middle of the day. I thought, “No, surely not!” (Well, something like that – though I might have used more colorful language). But it was true. The alarm’s meaning was clear as only a second later as each of the operators in the room announced almost in unison that their consoles went dead. A couple of folks that had been talking on the phone chimed in that their calls dropped. It was clearly true – the Dead System Alarm meant the phone system had completely crashed. No one on base using that system would have dial tone.

    Now, the system sounding that alarm was not the only system on the base, there was a civilian system to supply the various homes in Base Housing, a separate command system, and another full system on the other half of the base. There were also a handful of private phone systems managed by defense contractors. But I wasn’t thinking about that right then. The analyst that had his radio playing shushed us all. He turned up the volume on the radio and we all heard the news. Even more than the video and photos I would see later, that Dead System Alarm is burned into my memory, associated forever for me with the destruction of the Challenger.

    The rest of the day is essentially a blur as the news went to 24 x 7 coverage of the disaster. The now too familiar Y shaped explosion wiped anything else from my mind. We speculated, of course, about what could have happened – perhaps sabotage, perhaps some explosive bolts had fired inappropriately.

    Mostly we mourned the loss of the shuttle crew – the first to include a civilian teacher. I no longer remember when the reality of what had happened finally sunk in. I’m sure it was days or weeks, possibly months. I wish I could tell you about the emotions – but my journal entries carry only the facts and speculations. I have only these two lines and paragraph:

    28 January 1986 24:00

    “The Shuttle Blew Up. I have no words to describe what I feel inside. It’s too big.”

    “We are an age of explorers. All frontiers are frought with danger. Columbus was an explorer. He faced his possible death with courage – he did not give up when it became tough. He discovered a new world. We are at the extreme edges of our knowledge. A new world is just about to come into view. We CAN’T give up now. Life is nothing if we don’t push the frontiers. Senetor Glenn said human history is lined with Triumph, … and tragedy.”

    Vandenberg never did launch the shuttle after that.

    Oh, and the reason the phone system crashed: A phone system can only handle a small percentage of simultaneous “off hook” requests. They very seldom need to handle more that that tiny fraction. January 28, 1986 at


  8. (dang, hit tab and space and that hit submit….)(
    January 28, 1986 at that particular moment, a very large portion of the base compliment tried to get dial tone and call someone all at that same moment. The phone system couldn’t deal with all the requests at once and went into fatal error.


  9. And now to remember the Columbia crew. Five years ago.


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