Challenger Incident at Twenty

Twenty years ago today, the U.S. space program suffered what was, at that time, it’s greatest tragedy to date. The Shuttle Challenger exploded in a both glorious and horrible shower of flames shortly after lift-off. Aboard were seven explorers, some military, some scientists or engineers, and one school teacher selected to take part in a remarkable program to bring space exploration closer to school children across the country. It was because of that last individual that so many of my generation were watching this, of all the shuttle launches at the time, so closely.

I remember my Mom telling my I had a phone call from my good friend Brian, who knew my love for all things space and science. After a short hello, he blurted out "the space shuttles blown up." I misunderstood him, thinking that he was telling me that they had simply gone up into space, as usual, just as we had grown to taking for granted. The modern miracle of man leaving his terrestrial home to explore the rest of everything. He quickly corrected me that no, it had exploded and no one knew why.

So many of today’s children get called generation 9/11. My generations first exposure to the fragile nature of man and that all of us; all of us, are fallible was the picture of the country’s greatest technological marvel bursting into a fireball.

The Space Shuttle program, as I grew up to learn, was riddled with problems and errors. It became, literally, a textbook example of engineers falling short of their duty to keep the public safe from harm no matter the political or economic cost. It is a painful memory for a boy who truly believed astronauts to be the best that humanity had to offer the universe. It was also painful as an adult to see just how little we had learned since then when Columbia broke apart over the Western U.S. upon re-entry.

I’ll always believe that space exploration is important to humanity. However, we must overcome so much of our flaws in order to pursue it.

2 thoughts on “Challenger Incident at Twenty”

  1. Thanks for the link. That was an interesting read. I think it certainly does shed some light on exactly what did happen after launch and some on what went on before. I apologize if my remarks led anyone to believe that I think politics, in a non-professional sense, led to the disaster.

    My college Engineering Ethics (yes, we take that class, stop snickering) textbook gives the Challenger as the second example (following the Citicorp building). According to the Rogers Commission titled the Report to the President by the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, the supervising engineer, Robert Lund, was told "take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat" by the Sr. V.P. of the company who had previously given a no-launch recommendation. That recommendation was changed, under no direct order but knowing the pressure to make launch. The predicted temperature at launch was below the minimum recommended for safe operation (by a rather large margin).

    So, it wasn’t any sort of political maneuvering on some national level, but rather a company that hoped to ensure that through cooperation with the agency in charge, they would have their contract renewed. Certainly, these are all things that must be considered as no one truly designs or operates in a vacuum. However, the decision to withdraw sound engineering judgment crossed the line.

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