Remembering Challenger

This weekend, I met a young woman, now attending law school in Ann Arbor, who was in diapers when it happened. To her, it’s ancient unremembered history, just as the Eisenhower administration is to me (though I at least study it, unlike most of my age cohorts). It made me feel old. We have a generation, though, about ten years older than her, now in their thirties, for whom it was probably the most traumatic event of their young lives. The comments are closed on my post from six years ago, but anyone who wants to post remembrances can do it here, with the caveat that I still haven’t completely recovered from my recent MT upgrade (still hoping that someone who knows it will volunteer to help), so you can use them, but they will time out. Don’t expect to get a response after submitting the comment. Just back up after a while, and refresh the page to see it.

I’m particularly interested in how the event changed your perception of the Shuttle, and the space program in general, if at all, per my previous thoughts.

29 comments on this post.
  1. Jonathan Goff:

    I was in kindergarten at the time. But even I feel old these days…

    ~Jon

  2. K:

    I was in school at the time. We didn’t want to talk about the last minutes of the astronauts.

    I didn’t have my “hey, wait a minute” moment for a few years after that, when the political/technical implications of it finally hit me. But I do remember Al Gore coming to national prominence based on his grandstanding the investigation.

  3. Jay Manifold:

    Didn’t change my perception much – I already thought the SRBs were a bad idea that had a lot more to do with the seniority of the Utah delegation than with good design. Also that the Shuttle should be privatized … which wouldn’t have worked because nobody in their right mind would have bought it.

    Within a couple of days of the first anniversary, I heard a talk by one of the other would-be teachers-in-space, a man who had trained with Christa McAuliffe, and also happened to see Koyaanisqatsi, which famously ends with the explosion of an Atlas-Centaur, possibly the one carrying Mariner 8. Sobering, to say the least.

    One of the most infuriating things about our present situation is the circular arguments supporting business-as-usual at NASA: building rockets is hard, so no progress in greater safety and reduced cost can be expected, because building rockets is hard. Just keep giving them money for more of the same, forever. It’s as though it were 1950 and there were three airplanes in the entire US, all being used for what amount to test flights over the same course a few times a year.

    I look forward to Branson et al busting up the Shuttle/ISS racket in a big way.

  4. Ed Minchau:

    I was in 12th grade at the time, one of the few computer geeks in the lab during the lunch hour (Mountain time). Someone poked his head in the lab and said “hey, the Shuttle just blew up”. I said, “yeah, right, fuck you, you’re full of shit,” and went back to work. Then I went home that night and saw the giant Y on TV, over and over and over.

    And yeah, it totally changed my view of NASA. Not because of the accident itself, but watching all the butt-covering, and nobody being held accountable for what was “obviously a major malfunction”. I have a feeling that if it wasn’t for Feynman then nothing would have changed at all.

    My disillusionment was complete 17 years later, hearing Mike Griffin use the lame excuse that the Shuttle was still “experimental” (but apparently safe enough to put a member of Congress and a Senator into orbit). I mean, come on, if it is still experimental then there should *only* be test pilots on board, nobody else. Columbia showed that NASA had learned diddly squat from the lessons of Challenger.

  5. Josh Reiter:

    I was in 5th grade at the time. I believe we had to alter our lunch schedule a bit to be able to watch the launch. We had a substitute teacher that day and we all came back to the classroom and sat down, sans teacher. My friend and I knew we were missing the launch but had no teacher in sight to get the TV hooked up and turned on for quite some time. The school’s administrators no doubt had to huddle the teachers together and make certain everyone understood the situation that had just occurred and how to convey the message to the students.

    The substitute eventually came back to the class and somberly explained the situation. For many of us we never had to deal with death and so I think the gravity of situation didn’t immediately set in. There were some of those, however, that were somehow more aware of the permanency of this loss and started to cry. I was certainly saddened to hear about the loss of the astronauts but was perversely mesmerized by the immense power of the explosion and the energy that was release. I wanted to see the explosion, not because I thought it was cool or wicked, but to feel like I was a part of trying to determine what went wrong. Why did this happen to us?

    Just the year before I had take a field trip with my family to Kennedy Space Center and actually saw Columbia on the pad from afar. I had come away with posters, models, and books and my knowledge of the Shuttle was pretty good for my age. I’d watch the evening news religiously to get the latest on the investigation and analysis. I was humbled greatly to see how precarious the Shuttle was during launch and my respect grew with the notion that it even worked at all.

    With this event I even saw my litigious personality begin to emerge. I remember consoling my friend, who took the loss a life a bit more personally then me, that the astronauts had signed up for this and understood the risks. Please, don’t judge me too harshly though, I was a strange kid in general.

    I would say this event was a memorable milestone in my life. It was one of my first exposures to tragedy and death having been lucky enough up until that point not to have lost any family members or property. I grew up quite a bit that day, January 28, 1986. Not only with learning how to deal with my emotions but also with developing thought processes with regards to macro events that affect outcomes outside of my own personal space. It was our Nations reach to Space that had been severely damaged and our pride and prestige that had been tarnished within all of us.

  6. Joe Latrell:

    The Challenger accident was the first shuttle launch I did not watch as it was happening. I had just come home after working a double shift and as I lay on the couch, my friend John called and said the shuttle blew up. I told him right and hung up the phone and back to bed I went. He called again and said starkly “Get up. Turn on the TV. Channel doesn’t matter.” and then he hung up.

    While watching the replays, I could not get out of my head that there must be a better way. Slowly of the months and years, the truth started to emerge as to what happened. It proved to me that maybe, just maybe we could do this without the government.

    At the time I didn’t pursue it because of some issues: no college degree, no training and no money. It would take a personal tragedy to push me to the point of starting a rocket company – with no college, no training and no money.

    While the loss is profound it must be understood that with challenges come pitfalls. The loss of life being one of them. It didn’t stop the settlers from making the US what it is today and I doubt it will really stop those who want to settle the stars. It just takes time.

  7. Milton Stanley:

    My fiance and I were in college, eating at a small Chinese restaurant when a friend came over from another table and told us about the Challenger explosion. Carolyn and I were so saddened by the news that we ate sat there mostly in silence. Within a few minutes our friends at the other table were joking and laughing and I wondered how they could laugh on such a sad day. It wasn’t the loss of seven lives–many, many more of my fellow Americans die on the highways every day, and none of them doing anything as exciting as an astronaut. It was the sense that the manned space program may have taken a mortal blow that day. Thank God that turned out not to be the case

  8. Milton Stanley:

    My fiance and I were in college, eating at a small Chinese restaurant when a friend came over from another table and told us about the Challenger explosion. Carolyn and I were so saddened by the news that we ate sat there mostly in silence. Within a few minutes our friends at the other table were joking and laughing and I wondered how they could laugh on such a sad day. It wasn’t the loss of seven lives–many, many more of my fellow Americans die on the highways every day, and none of them doing anything as exciting as an astronaut. It was the sense that the manned space program may have taken a mortal blow that day. Thank God that turned out not to be the case

  9. Edward Wright:

    I mean, come on, if it is still experimental then there should *only* be test pilots on board, nobody else.

    “Experimental” does not mean, and never has meant, “test pilots only.”

    Ask any member of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

  10. Dave Hardy:

    Ah, you young pups. I was practicing law in DC, married, with a one year old son. Now he’s in college, my then-wife is in her grave four years.

  11. Rich Durbin:

    I was in college and getting ready to go to class. I had the launch on live and had paused to watch the shuttle go up. It was stunning and I ended up staying in the rest of the day to watch the news.

    Several years later, I found myself serving on the same Navy ship that was first to the scene to investigate the wreckage.

  12. Richard:

    “There was nothing good about the Challenger disaster, but it did happen on the day that L. Ron Hubbard died and it blew that useless, evil, rat bastard’s obituary off the front page and that, at least, wasn’t bad.” –Penn Jillette

  13. Cato:

    I was at work in a New York law firm, listening on the radio, when it happened. I had known Christa MacAuliff slightly, her husband Steve was a college classmate. The personal connection made it very difficult, like when we lost classmates in Vietnam.

  14. Richard:

    “There was nothing good about the Challenger disaster, but it did happen on the day that L. Ron Hubbard died and it blew that useless, evil, rat bastard’s obituary off the front page and that, at least, wasn’t bad.” –Penn Jillette

  15. Anonymous:

    I remember that some of my fellow students and I were making a special presentation that day for the rest of the highschool student body. We were between class periods when we heard the news from our teacher. We went out to the loading dock and could see the Y of the plume in the east. It was clearly visible from our school on the west coast of Florida and seemed to hang there forever.

  16. Anonymous:

    I was driving to work on an LA freeway, listening to the radio news as usual, when the story came on. It was a bit past rush hour, so the freeway wasn’t jammed, but there were plenty of cars — and almost as though choreographed, we all stepped on our brakes at the same time, slowing just a bit, to absorb the news. It was like the day JFK was shot — you remember it always.

  17. Monte Davis:

    I was (ulp) 36, preoccupied with a 1-month-old son, working at home as usual. I had the TV on for the launch but wasn’t paying attention until a minute or so after T+73 seconds, when a corner of my mind said “you’re not hearing the usual terse checkoff exchanges any more…” and I focused on that awful plume.

    At the time I was in transition from science journalism to high-tech business writing. The former had put me in a position by 1981 to have low expectations of STS flight rate and economics. Both SDI and Space Station Freedom had struck me as “let’s pretend we’ve solved CATS” fantasies.

    I did retain the illusion that the shock of Challenger would jolt us out of that. It faded as soon as it became clear that the main response was going to be “poor brave astronauts, let’s forge on” rather than “we have a hell of a lot more to learn about RLVs before calling anything ‘operational.’ ”

  18. Tom:

    Senior in high school. First class after lunch, a friend who’d been in the activity room with a radio told me (I was, and still am, known as a space cadet) what had happened. Teacher ran out and got a TV, but came back without an antenna, so we could only pick up sound. The rest of the day is a bit of a blur.

  19. Mitch Berg:

    I was in the control room at a radio station, running a network show when the news crossed; the news director brought it off the teletype just before the network host broke in with the news.

    I was shocked, of course. And then the network show switched to taking calls about the disaster – and someone called in to babble about how Americans should take it as a sign that we were too arrogant and warmongering.

    In a foreshadowing of my much later blog life – I got very, very angry…

  20. amr:

    Our actual missions were remarkable in that although there were serious malfunctions, we had overcome them and saved our astronauts. The technical knowledge and ability to improvise of the ground support personnel and astronauts was and remains fantastic.

    The newly disclosed info by Pravda that the USSR had lost 3 cosmonauts in sub-orbital flights during the first three missions was not surprising. There were rumors about that at the time, but there were no facts because the USSR missions were not open to public scrutiny.

    I was a 41 year old nuclear field test engineer when the shuttle was lost. I was neither surprised nor shocked, but was angry that the shuttle’s schedule slip had made the mission’s senior management willing to launch when the temperatures at the shuttle were lower than the design envelope. I had worked with similar seals in a much different application years before, but “knew” once I heard about the seal material and the launch temperature, probably what had happened. The astronauts had lost their lives basically because of a management decision that ignored the design and test data; something that I had found not unusual, but had never before seen such a decision cause the loss of life as this decision did. I was much angrier later when the 3 engineers who tried to stop the launch and were called to testify at the Roger’s Commission’s hearings lost their jobs. That might be because that year I refused to back down from my negative findings in a review of a pre-operational test at a facility, was told I was endangering the project’s schedule and then there was a “massive layoff of one”, me.

    An old shipmate who was at launch control told me years later that the failure of the seal did not directly cause the accident, but that the thrust of the applicable engine was diminished to the point that the other engines thrust could not overcome it. As the shuttle was to angle for the orbit insertion, the engines could not place the nose at the proper angle and therefore the launch vehicle attempted to fly sideways, which it could not aerodynamically do, and therefore the structure failed causing it to break up.

  21. Chester White:

    I was in my late 20s, in the IBM “computer clone” business. My partner and I had been having trouble and a lot of expense getting out machines FCC-approved.

    The idiot rule was, and probably still is, that every single modification to a computer (adding a drive or RAM or changing a keyboard, even changing the screws used, etc.) required new certification from scratch, which cost about $1500. Obviously, virtually no one did it, but you could be severely fined for not doing so and we constantly worried.

    Anyway, a couple weeks before the Challenger accident, my partner said something like, “The FCC is worried that one of these computers will knock the Space Shuttle out of the sky.”

    So when he stuck his head in one day and told me the thing had exploded, I laughed at first. Then we turned on the TV.

  22. Rand:

    An old shipmate who was at launch control told me years later that the failure of the seal did not directly cause the accident, but that the thrust of the applicable engine was diminished to the point that the other engines thrust could not overcome it. As the shuttle was to angle for the orbit insertion, the engines could not place the nose at the proper angle and therefore the launch vehicle attempted to fly sideways, which it could not aerodynamically do, and therefore the structure failed causing it to break up.

    Your old shipmate was mistaken–that’s not what happened. A hot jet of gases from the leaking O-ring burned off the bottom support strut that held the booster to the external tank. It rotated into the tank, collapsing the lox tank, which resulted in a fireball and break up of the stack. Without the structure and propulsion to keep the vehicle moving forward, it then turned and was broken up by aerodynamics. It had nothing (or at least little) to do with the thrust level of the failed SRB.

  23. Jay Manifold:

    Huh, didn’t know about the L.Ron coincidence. Xenu did it!

    A more specific recollection of the day itself than the one I submitted earlier … I was 26 and working at a small biomedical electronics firm as a tech writer/component-engineer-without-portfolio/go-fer. Was just coming back from my morning trip to the vending machine when an engineer ran past me and said, “Shuttle blew up. We’re setting up a TV.” Spent the rest of the day with everybody else in R&D watching grainy broadcast TV of the events. Not much conversation and we were all pretty subdued.

  24. Ilya:

    I was nineteen, at Columbus Air Force base. A lieutenant walked in and said “Space shuttle just exploded.” I just stared at him — I think my brain did not quite process it for a few seconds. Then I followed to him to another room, with a TV.

  25. Mark Horning:

    7th grade. Someone came up to me in PE and told me that the space shuttle blew up. I responded with “yeah right.” or some such.

    The next period was science class. When we got there our teacher was sitting at the front of the classroom crying. That was when I knew it really had happened.

  26. Bob:

    I was in high school, sitting in Mr. Campbell’s chemistry class.

    He walked in and sat down and started barking, “You all want to bitch about how precise I want you to be in your experiments? Well someone wasn’t precise at NASA and it blew up the Apollo (sic) and all seven of them are dead!

    Now let’s get to work!”

    And you’re right, Rand, it’s a day I’ll remember forever, much like those of my mother’s generation remember the Kennedy assassination.

  27. Mike:

    I was sitting on the floor of uniform issue at the Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola sorting through the stack I’d just been issued when someone (I don’t know who – it was not a ‘looking around’ kind of environment) came in and announced “The Shuttle just blew up; there were no survivors”. I think the room full of AOCS candidates just sat there for a few minutes stunned – I know I did. We were all there to slip the surly bonds, after all, and not a few of the Pilot- and NFO-candidates had a run at the astronaut program hidden in the back of their minds. But the program moved on and during those first weeks our Marine Drill Instructors didn’t give us much time for pondering that or much of anything else other than trying (futilely) to not get yelled at.

    With no access to TV I was spared the endless replays and I didn’t get to see the president’s speech, so to some extent I was distanced from the larger context of the aftermath. When people compare the personal and wider societal reactions of 9/11 or the Columbia loss with Challenger I remain somewhat at a loss – all I remember was the shock of the news and a brief pause, and then the flag-raising details having to properly get the flag raised to half mast in the morning.

    I ended up dropping-on-request from AOCS about a month into the program, and I can’t say the loss of the shuttle and the questions it raised for me about the future of the space program and the impact on a career path leading to the astronaut office didn’t contribute to my choice to quit.

  28. Mike:

    I was sitting on the floor of uniform issue at the Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola sorting through the stack I’d just been issued when someone (I don’t know who – it was not a ‘looking around’ kind of environment) came in and announced “The Shuttle just blew up; there were no survivors”. I think the room full of AOCS candidates just sat there for a few minutes stunned – I know I did. We were all there to slip the surly bonds, after all, and not a few of the Pilot- and NFO-candidates had a run at the astronaut program hidden in the back of their minds. But the program moved on and during those first weeks our Marine Drill Instructors didn’t give us much time for pondering that or much of anything else other than trying (futilely) to not get yelled at.

    With no access to TV I was spared the endless replays and I didn’t get to see the president’s speech, so to some extent I was distanced from the larger context of the aftermath. When people compare the personal and wider societal reactions of 9/11 or the Columbia loss with Challenger I remain somewhat at a loss – all I remember was the shock of the news and a brief pause, and then the flag-raising details having to properly get the flag raised to half mast in the morning.

    I ended up dropping-on-request from AOCS about a month into the program, and I can’t say the loss of the shuttle and the questions it raised for me about the future of the space program and the impact on a career path leading to the astronaut office didn’t contribute to my choice to quit.

  29. pasta:

    I was teaching elementary music in a Catholic school. I had a class coming in (of fifth graders) and was so upset when I heard that I sent them back to their classroom teacher. There was just something about Christa McAuliffe being onboard that made it even more traumatic for me than it would have been.