Thursday, January 28, 2016

30 years since Challenger

It forever changed the way we look at space exploration.

It was also what they call a "you remember where you were" moment. When the space shuttle Challenger was lost 30 years ago on this day, I was a young lad in school. Word got around between teachers and students but it wouldn't be until I got home that I'd see the footage on TV. And we all saw it. Over and over again. That image of the central fireball and the aimless solid rocket boosters forking away from it is indelible. It looked like fireworks but I knew it was people dying. Any insouciant attitudes we had towards space were gone or at least seriously eroded.

Sadly, the news only got worse. Most everyone thought that the seven member crew of Challenger were killed instantly in the explosion. Turns out they were likely alive for the whole two minute fall to the ocean. There was also talk that NASA continued to receive open audio transmissions from the crew compartment during that time. I believe that NASA did in fact eventually acknowledge that this was so, but wisely refused to release any record of those final godawful minutes out of respect for the families. I remember reading a supposed transcript of those transmissions a few months later, but it appeared in something tabloid-y and therefore I didn't place much stock in it, even as a kid.

Perhaps even more stomach-churning was later learning that the disaster was utterly preventable. It was, at its core, a human failure. The engineering team had warned against launching on such a cold day. Heedless, the bureaucracy and a sick culture at NASA pushed the launch when it wasn't safe. Seven people died because of it. Here's a video clip of the noble physicist Richard Feynman in a press conference, forcing the agency to come clean about what happened.

I've also been watching this clip from CNN covering the launch and subsequently the disaster live:

That silence is eerie. Haunting. As is the flat, passionless commentary from Mission Control following it. I don't mean that as any criticism for what else was the announcer going to say or how else was he going to say it? It just added to the surreal qualities of the moment.

All these years later it certainly sticks with you. Nothing routine about traveling into space.

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