In January 1986 I was in grad school. Doug came by and said that the Space Shuttle had blown up. I knew there was a launch attempt that day, but this was the first word I'd heard of the Challenger Disaster. I raced over to the MTU Union and through the back door into the "rubber room" -- before the renovation, they had this dingy basement TV room with these oddly discolored plastic/foam blocks which formed "chairs". The room was packed as we watched the seventy-odd seconds of the launch over and over, interspersed with watching debris raining down into the Atlantic for what seems like forever. I'd thought maybe it'd gone up on the pad. The reality though... right on the cusp, right after "Go for throttle up" and passing through Max Q -- the maximum aerodynamic forces on the spacecraft. Clear sailing ahead, or so the crew must've thought.
Eventually the word came out about what had happened, and the stupidity which caused the tragic results. I still get mad thinking about it. And yet, it had to happen sometime. Twenty-five years of manned spaceflight and we thought we'd never lose a crew? Wasn't possible. And Challenger provides a powerful teachable moment to our young scientists and engineers.
Forty-Four Years Ago Yesterday...
In January 1967 I was in the third grade. And after a tremendously successful Gemini space program, NASA was winding up towards the first manned Apollo mission. And then the Apollo 1 (Apollo/Saturn 204) command module burned up on the pad, killing Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.
In an article on Mlive from the Grand Rapids Press on "NASA honors Grand Rapids native Roger B. Chaffee, other astronauts killed in space exploration", one of the commenters mentioned that they had been watching Time Tunnel when the announcement came. Huh -- we definitely would've been watching that. But The Time Tunnel was on ABC. I imagine that as soon as ABC News broke in, probably Jules Bergman, that we eventually switched to CBS -- and found Walter Cronkite crying on the air.
Interestingly, Jules Bergman "covered all 54 manned American space flights, from the first Mercury launching to the Challenger disaster" before he died in 1987.
Eight Years Ago Come Tuesday...
In February 2003, we were pretty much entrenched here in West Michigan. I was a year out from going to Clarion in 2004, but I'd already been submitting stories to markets for over six months. Didn't yet have a blog, but I was doing class web pages -- the memorial graphic below was one I made to add to my homepage in memoriam of what was about to happen.
Saturday's began as lazy days, lying in bed, listening to NPR Weekend Edition, when just after 9am EST, NPR reported a problem with Columbia and we jumped out to the living room TV and saw video of streaks of fireballs separating over the Texas skies as the space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry.
As we began to understand what happened and why, the old fears about bad management reared their ugly heads. And perversely, one was amazed at the rain of debris which survived the breakup and fall from the top of the atmosphere.
Three Events, Three Eras
Three crews -- seventeen astronauts. It's a lot to commemorate. And odd that it all falls in a narrow window at the end of January and the beginning of February.
Though Challenger and Columbia were both Space Shuttles, in 1986 we'd not lost a flight crew on a mission. There was considerable finger pointing, soul searching and redesign before NASA sent another shuttle into space. In 2003, we wondered if the old NASA sloppiness of 1967 and 1986 was back. I wasn't sure we'd ever fly another shuttle mission -- and knew that was wrong on so many levels. I think NASA got too risk averse after Columbia, not wanting to lose a third shuttle over anything. And while the shuttle program is not without its flaws or its expenses, I myself would've extended the program with one or two next generation shuttles and we wouldn't be facing a loss of manned flight capacity by the end of 2011.
Good God, man, we ripped apart the Apollo program in 1967 and by 1968-69, achieved the impossible -- to send Man to the Moon and return safely.
This, then, is the time to remember the seventeen men and women -- their support crews and colleagues and families. We utter phrases like "Their deaths shall not have been in vain", but then we have to back it up. Although I marvel at and applaud all the wonderful work being done with satellites and robotic rovers and probes, and don't want to give any of that up, I also believe in a manned space program and think it essential to our very being that we keep chipping away at the boundaries of space.
And not just to honor the seventeen. Or those lost in accidents near space from other programs. But because we shouldn't give up. It's the right thing to do.