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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