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.

By Jason Coleman

Structural engineer and technical content manager Bentley Systems by day. Geeky father and husband all the rest of time.


  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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