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Tragedy 25 Years Ago

Friday, January 28, 2011, 23:36 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Twenty-five years ago this morning, I was in the Student Union building on my college campus, studying in a booth in the lower level Rathskeller. The location was abuzz at all hours of the day and evening, and that Tuesday shortly before lunch time was no exception. Students, professors, and other employees came and went, talking as they did. Near the center of the large open space was a conventional television set kept on during the day for soap operas and game shows, and a projector that allowed for prime time TV viewing on a pull-down projection screen that gave us big-screen TV before there was such a thing.

At some point I was vaguely aware of an employee from the Union’s pizza shop walking past my booth while telling someone I couldn’t see that the space shuttle was on television. The school’s respected Aeronautical Engineering program produced several graduate who went to work for NASA or its contractors; our recently deceased President, George Low, had managed the Apollo program and, as NASA’s Deputy Administrator, was involved in the early development of the Space Shuttle; and Low’s son, David, was an astronaut awaiting his first mission. For all those reasons, there were many people on campus who would be interested in a space flight.

I wasn’t one of them. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a launch that day. I probably should have, given all the aforementioned connections between the college where I was enrolled and the U.S. space program and the fact that teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe was from Massachusetts. Besides, my father had worked for a government contractor in the 1960s and was assigned to the project that developed a new guidance system for the Titan missile that converted it from a ballistic missile to a rocket suitable for manned space flight in the Gemini program. But by 1986, the space program was old hat, almost five years after the first Space Shuttle flight. And I had other things to worry about. I had just begun the second semester of my junior year, was preparing to look for jobs for after graduation, and still hurt from a brutal break-up a few weeks before. By the time I realized that the level of activity around me was slightly greater than usual, a small group had gathered around the TV. I joined them and started watching what I thought was a live launch. After 73 seconds, I realized the Challenger was different and there would be no mission.

By the time late morning classes got out and more people funneled into the Rathskeller, the number of TV watchers multiplied. The management lowered the projection screen and that space became information central for people who wanted to see the latest news. Sometime that night, somebody stuck seven small American flags in the snow, each one bearing the name of a Challenger crew member written on one of the white stripes.

Over the next several years, NASA investigated the explosion and made several changes to better ensure spacecraft integrity and crew safety. Our graduates continued to seek employment with NASA. Shuttle missions resumed in late 1988 and were safe until 2003, when the Columbia broke up on re-entry due to damage sustained during launch. David Low, whose father helped bring about the shuttle era, flew three shuttle missions between 1990 and 1993; in 2008, he died of cancer, like his father did. The Space Shuttle program will come to an end this year, probably with an April mission by the Endeavour. The families of the Challenger crew are living their lives.

The Challenger deaths weren’t the first in America’s space program and they weren’t the last. There will probably be others to come, especially now that there is talk about staffed missions to Mars. There are those who believe such missions aren’t worth the danger. Astronauts consider the risk to be a price they are willing to pay for the advancement of science and exploration. The Challenger crew accepted that risk and died doing what they wanted to do. That’s what pioneers do. If they were willing to make the sacrifice, then the rest of us should be willing to let them, and honor them by celebrating the fruits of their labors.

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