This morning my Google calendar of space history woke me to say that the space shuttle Challenger exploded 34 years ago today.
If you are GenX like me, you remember exactly where you were in 1986 when the Challenger lifted off but failed to reach orbit with a crew of 6 astronauts and one schoolteacher from New Hampshire.
For each of the older generations there has been this kind of a winter disaster. For the boomers, there was the Jan 27, 1967 loss of Apollo 1. The 3-man crew lost their lives during a preflight test when a spark ignited their cabin’s oxygen atmosphere. For Millennials there were was the February 1, 2003 loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated during re-entry.
One of the things we talk about over on CosmoQuest is the simple fact that space is hard. Getting to space is one of the most challenging things a machine with or without humans can accomplish, and the only task that is more challenging is getting to the bottom of the ocean. It is amazing that so few astronauts have died.
This month, we saw the inflight abort test of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Capsule. That successful test sets us up to start sending astronauts to space in a brand new spacecraft. As we do that, it is important for us to both remember past tragedies, and not let them hold us back.
I wrote about my experience with the Challenger loss in a blog post I apparently wrote 12 years ago. Rereading that post today, and looking at how long it has been since the final shuttle launch on July 8, 2011, I feel sad and tired and old.
I am sad because so little has happened in the “Dare Boldly” category since 2008. I feel tired because I know how hard so many people including myself have worked to advocate for space and innovate new ways to do science, and it seems that we’re still always 6 months away from something happening. I feel old because I just realised the current NASA administrator is two years my junior.
In 2008, I called for NASA to make space for young people to rise and take on the mantel held by the Sputnik and Apollo generations, and let us fly with bold dreams. I now look at the GenX NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, and realize we may dream boldly, we may even lead, but NASA is still bound by the constraints of a fickle federal leadership, with changing goals and tight purse strings. We want to stride boldly into the future, but I feel instead like we are stumbling forward as best we can, shackled to a bureaucracy of favored companies, favored planets, and irrational costs that are only going to grow out of control as the direction we are supposed to be going keeps changing.
We may be just months from the launch of humans on board a SpaceX Crew Dragon. It is unclear at this time how long it will be until humans launch on Boeing’s Starliner capsule, but it could be just half a year. Those astronauts are either preparing the way for the executive branche’s dream of the moon or the legislature’s dreams of Mars.
As we prepare to return to space on these still-to-be-proven new spacecraft, we need to remember that space is hard. There will be loss of life again. And we need to remember that the astronauts accept that risk when they sign up.
As we move forward, let’s celebrate the lives of those who died in the pursuit of space, and let’s be inspired to once again dare mighty things. The real problem comes in implementation; doing bold things may require a fundamental change in how we explore. By allowing the whims of the government to dictate NASA’s direction, long term planning becomes impossible, and since science and engineering can take longer than an election cycle, we keep ending up with incomplete ideas. In many areas of research, this problem is avoided through a competitive process where peer-review, review by the National Academies, and investment in deciding community goals through processes like Decadal Surveys, allow the field to act (more or less) coherently to define longterm projects and priorities.
Imagine a competitively funded space program where people didn’t just pitch science missions, but they also pitched human space missions. Imagine if instead of picking a planet or asteroid to head toward based on a presidential decree, we instead had a call for proposals and had our best and brightest (who didn’t propose) evaluate the most efficient and scientifically useful path forward. I want that future. I don’t think I will get that future… but it’s fun to dream.
We need to let the space explorers explore, competitively and doing what is best to build a longterm, sustainable infrastructure that carries us and/or our robots to new worlds. We need to explore boldly and with purpose, and we must honour the fallen heroes who helped get us where we are today.