Reflections on Challenger at +20 Years.

Thursday, 8 November 2006, 7:30 p.m.

The following piece was first published in the Alamogordo Daily News on January 27, 1991.  The author's sentiments expressed about the U. S. space program have changed little.  The formatting is as published in the newspaper.

Everyone remembers Jan. 28, 1986, at 9:39 a.m.

by Tom Seddon

Special to the Daily News

Calamities sear an image into our soul as surely as hot iron brands our flesh.  Our shocked consciousness desperately grabs a fix on reality.

“We have no downlink.” – Mission Control.

Thus, I will always recall vividly Jan. 28, 1986, at 9:39 a.m., when the shuttle Challenger exploded.

I was in my conference period at Mid High and had just stepped outside into a beautiful winter’s day.  The sky was a sweeping blue dome.

A colleague broke the news, adding, “Wasn’t this the one with that teacher on board?”

A moment of incredulity was followed by an overpowering feeling of personal loss.  For some minutes, I simply could not function, but only grieve.

I rummaged for shuttle info, made transparencies and discussed the catastrophe with my classes.  Idle speculation, of course, masquerading as informed opinion.

That evening, with my very first look at a replay, I knew.  Only a complete detonation of the main tank could make such clouds.  Against the indigo of the sky, the pure white billows were lit with coral pink tints as the orbiter shattered.  Ugly strap-on boosters rocketed aloft, contrails scrawling grotesquely.

It was awe-full and hypnotic.  I watched again, again and again.

“An accident rooted in history.” – Rogers Commission.

The euphoria of the Apollo program in the 1960s had waned.  Inflation and oil prices squeezed the national purse and an endless war drained the national spirit.  In the 1970s, we took our eyes off space and started watching our own backs.

To save itself from dissolving altogether, NASA put forth a new Space Transportation System; one tough truck, the space shuttle, to commute back and forth from space every two weeks, and cheaply, too.

NASA got its shuttle and, at that point, the United States no longer had a space program.  We had another agency scrambling for publicity, prestige and its share of our greenbacks.

NASA managers became almost manic about living up to their own hype.  But the shuttle was more complex that Apollo-Saturn.  The final design reminds one of those jokes about things made by committees and reeks of engineering compromise.

Schedules drove the program.  Twelve flights were planned in 1984 – only five flew.  Fourteen were set for 1985 – only eight flew.  The pressure was on.

Coded as STS 51L, Challenger was scheduled for a Jan. 23 lift-off.  Five days slipped by.  Confronted by the record cold of Jan. 28, engineers raised concerns.  NASA managers brushed them aside.

With 15 shuttle flights set for the next 11 months, rules were bent.  Waivers were written and re-written.  Companies covered themselves with excuses.  Finally Launch Director Gene Thomas gave the order to go.  Seventy-three seconds later, it all came apart.

“The loss of common interest.” – Richard Feynman.

Five years later, I reflect.  The shuttle seems to have arrived at a premature dotage.  It still can’t meet a schedule – only six got up in 1990 – and at up to 500 megabucks a trip, hardly economical.

NASA keeps up a brave front.  To build the Space Station, “the next logical step,” NASA needed more than 130 shuttle flights.  There is an 88 percent chance of losing another orbiter and crew in the process.

Congress finally stepped in.  Start over, NASA, and keep it simple.

Compare the lurching of the United States’ space transportation system with the plodding success of the Soviets’ space program.  Cosmonauts continue to set endurance records in the space station Mir.  And they will fly their shuttle this year.

What ails the U. S. space efforts?  Is it just inevitable bureaucratization with its attendant politics and ambition?  Is it commercial greed and rude grubbing for profits at the national trough?

Perhaps.  But I hold with Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize physicist who served on the Rogers Commission on the shuttle disaster), who blamed the Challenger disaster on a deterioration of cooperation among all involved.  A deterioration rooted ultimately in “the loss of common interest.”

Americans must rekindle the ebbing fires of the dream of the crew of STS 51L or we must settle for mediocre muddling.  Christa said, “What are we doing here?  We’re reaching for the stars.”

In memoriam: the words of President Reagan.

“Dick, Mike, Judy, El, Ron, Greg and Christa – your families and your country mourn your passing.  We bid you goodbye, but we will never forget you.”

Editor’s note:  Tom Seddon teaches physics and computer science at Alamogordo High School.  In 1988, he was New Mexico’s Christa McAuliffe Fellow, a grant program funded by Congress after the Challenger disaster for research in innovative high school teaching.  His comments below were compiled as he reflected on the five-year anniversary of the Challenger disaster, which is Monday.

Words! Mere Words! Was there anything so real as words? - Dorian Gray