Challenger, in Memoriam

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January 28, 2006 at 7:13 am

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It takes a twenty year anniversary to put the first loss of U.S. astronauts in flight back in the public consciousness. NASA’s

() was lost 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, the victim of faulty O-ring seals on its Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), and a broken management and safety culture within NASA.

The Shuttle fleet was grounded until 1988, at which point Shuttle flights resumed with redesigned SRBs and a newfound awareness of the risks of manned spaceflight. Did the management and safety culture change?

It was said to have, yet 17 years later, we lost the Space Shuttle Columbia () and her crew during re-entry — the victim of burn-through caused by wing damage sustained during lift-off.

Unfortunately, on this twentieth anniverary of the loss of Challenger, we find ourselves again with a grounded Space Shuttle program, after the much publicized and arguably highly successful “Return to Flight” mission () of Space Shuttle Discovery experienced a similar, though smaller,

during launch. As a result of dual space tragedies, Discovery’s return to flight involved the first

of the Space Shuttle’s thermal protection system (), in a daring multi-pronged extra-vehicular activity (EVA) involving two spacewalking astronauts, the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm (), and the ’s robotic arm.

Spaceflight is inherently risky, just as all great expeditions and endeavors are risky. Astronauts and their families know this, and many of them come from military and test-flight backgrounds — equally, if not moreso, dangerous enterprises. But that doesn’t eliminate NASA’s culpability in each disaster, nor America’s.

So often, the American culture and media aren’t linked with the Challenger disaster, and yet they helped create the flawed safety and management culture within NASA in the late 1980’s. Americans had already stopped tuning in to most of the live Space Shuttle launches. Space travel was viewed nearly as routine an enterprise as commercial airline travel, in an era when commercial aviation wasn’t complicated by things like 9/11. Shuttle launch delays for weather and “minor” computer glitches were groused about in the media, and around the watercoolers and vending machines of the American workplace. Challenger changed all that, for a time. It took Columbia’s tragic loss in 2003, just minutes from a successful landing at Kennedy Space Center (Florida), to educate the newest generation and remind their elders.

I’ve always been touched by the lives of explorers and pioneers, particularly those of

the space-faring variety: Chuck Yeager, John Glenn (astronaut turned Democratic Senator, 1974-1999), Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom (died in the Apollo 1 fire, along with Roger Chafee and Ed White), Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe (died aboard Challenger, STS-51L, along with her six crewmates, and the hopes of a nation to see more private citizens travel in space,) and of course, the Columbia crew — an international crew, including an Indian woman and an Israeli Air Force pilot.

To steal the words of , when he announced the goal of the U.S. to reach the moon within a decade,

“…we choose to do (these) things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Spaceflight is hard; I believe it will always be hard. Mankind has much to learn, yet, about breaking the force of Earth’s gravity to “slip the surly bonds of Earth, and touch the face of God.” () We learn and adapt, but with each successful step we take, we set our sights on something more challenging in the distance. That is the nature of mankind, and it is a characteristic I hope we never, ever lose.

God Bless the explorers, for they help us see the Earth and space as nothing and no one else can. They put men and women, and their creations (Mars ,) in places that our ancestors scarcely dreamed possible, and in so doing, open our minds, imaginations, and lives to new possibilities. Explorers take risks so that others may dream. Let’s keep those dreams alive!

I was 12 years old when the Challenger disaster occurred. I attended

in August 1987.

Enjoyed this entry? Check out .

STS-51L Memorial (front), Arlington National Cemetary, Washington, D.C.Copyright © 2005 Shannon D. Moore (OutdoorPhoto.com)

STS-51L Memorial (back), Arlington National Cemetary, Washington, D.C.Copyright © 2005 Shannon D. Moore (OutdoorPhoto.com)

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Archives from One Year Ago —

5 Comments

January 28, 2006

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I’m still shocked that the Challenger disaster was TWENTY years ago.

Time flies…

Thanks for the insightful post and sobering reflection.

God bless our explorers, past, present and future….

January 28, 2006

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I was hoping you’d write something today.

Thanks for this.

January 28, 2006

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Thanks to you both. I, too, have a hard time grasping that something so crystal clear in my memory occurred twenty years ago.

It left an indelible imprint, and I was so grateful to locate the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51L) and Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-107) memorials at Arlington National Cemetary when we were in Washington, D.C. back in October 2005. It was as close to these great men and women as I had ever stood, beyond meeting Challenger Commander Dick Scobee’s widow when an elementary school was dedicated in her honor here in San Antonio, Texas, a couple years after the disaster.

January 29, 2007

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Wanted to let you know that I enjoy the “one year ago” segment to you blog … and that I recall the event clearly as I was at the Cape. (sort of) My wife and I were down to Orlando that week and while she was business with her business I drove to Cocoa Beach to watch the launch. It was postponed do to the cold weather … and they launched the next day. I didn’t make it back for that fateful launch but watch the skies from Orlando. The memory is as clear as can be.

Thanks for remembering those lost in pursuit of science and exploration.

June 21, 2008

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sad. Seems like yesterday. 22yrs in a flash.

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