January 28, 1986 was one of those dates where everyone remembers what they were doing when they heard the news. Conversational Spanish class at the University of Illinois. No English allowed. So one of the students relayed the shocking information thusly: “El Space Shuttle explotó!” We all looked at each other. “Explotó?” asked a classmate with incredulity. “Estás tratando de decir lanzado?” [Exploded? Are you trying to say ‘launched’?]. “No,” the distraught student insisted. “Explotó.” More uncomprehending stares. Finally in exasperation he blurted out: “IT BLEW UP!”
That was how I learned the Space Shuttle Challenger had been engulfed in a calamitous fireball nine miles over the Atlantic Ocean, a mere 73 seconds after lift-off. The shock of this event, the national trauma it induced, cannot be adequately understood today. It came as a bolt from the blue. And so much more so because among the seven highly intelligent, accomplished crew members was a high school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire. Chosen after a national search for an educator to ride the Shuttle, Christa McAuliffe was to be the first “regular person” to go into space. She was one of us. A decent, hardworking, affable sort, who was not only a beloved teacher but also a devoted wife and mother of two young children. The implication behind her trip on the orbiter was that space travel had become as routine as hopping on a commercial airliner. It had to be, right? Otherwise there was no way NASA, an acronym which by that time had taken on mythical qualities of competence and excellence, would ever put one of us into that thing. Would they?
After absorbing the news, my class raced into the hallway searching out the nearest TV. We found one and gathered with other students who’d poured out of other classrooms while the horrifying spectacle replayed over and over from every angle. Off screen, somber news anchors pelted hastily assembled experts for premature theories as to what could have happened. We were curious about that, naturally. But what affected us most at that moment beyond the sudden and awesome violence of the event itself, were the images of distraught relatives in the viewing stands, their non-believing eyes groping skyward in shocked horror as the smoking pieces of the 2,000-ton orbiter fell like meteorites back to earth. Only the liberated solid rocket boosters continued in their chaotic zig-zagging ascent towards the heavens those seven riders would never see. Who would ever forget the faces of Christa McAuliffe’s parents as their expressions changed from exhilaration (that was their daughter up there!) to perplexity as the craft disappeared in the flames and smoke, to a sinking realization of their worst fears when the detached voice on the loudspeaker first said: “Obviously a major malfunction” and then, forty interminable seconds later: “We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.”
That night Ronald Reagan, in an act of presidential grace that often seems to be lost today, postponed his scheduled State of the Union Address to come on the air and offer his mourning nation what comfort he could and eulogize the seven Americans lost. But he also steeled us to learn from this experience, and persevere. “The future,” he said, “does not belong to the faint-hearted. It belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”
In his address, Reagan expressed his unflinching belief in the space program. When the inevitable commission to investigate what actually caused the disaster was formed, the man he chose to lead it was William B. Rogers, a consummate D.C. insider with no technical expertise. Rogers was explicitly instructed not to embarrass NASA. But, as the series of mismanaged events that led up to the Challenger launch revealed themselves, it was impossible to not point the finger at the culture of the government agency. As it turned out, it was an organization that had been rolling the dice for years with the Shuttle program in efforts to keep up with a promised schedule that early on revealed itself to be impossibly demanding.
The commission eventually concluded—as one member, the iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman, famously demonstrated by performing a simple experiment during a hearing—the cause of the accident was a faulty O-ring, made brittle by the cold, that wrapped around the right aft joint of one of the solid rocket boosters (SRB). Its failure allowed a plume of flame to penetrate the massive external fuel tank like an acetylene torch until the 350,000-gallons of liquid propellant ignited. The investigation, which included information leaked by a NASA whistleblower to The New York Times, revealed that the SRBs’ manufacturer, Morton Thiokol, had taken the unprecedented action of recommending against sending Challenger up on January 28 as planned. In an urgent conference call with the Kennedy and Marshall Space Flight Centers the night before launch, several Morton Thiokol engineers expressed grave concerns that the freezing temperatures could cause the rubber O-rings, with which they’d already seen signs of degradation under optimal conditions, to lose elasticity, compromise the seams, and thus lead to the exact catastrophic malfunction that did, in fact, occur.
But the Challenger mission had more at stake than usual. After twenty-four missions, the Shuttle launches had become back page news. This time, however, the “teacher in space” angle had revitalized flagging national interest in the program. News networks were devoting extra coverage, and classrooms all over the United States would be watching the lift-off in real time. Plus, it had already been scrubbed twice due to weather. NASA officials pushed back hard against the Morton Thiokol people who knew best the SRBs’ limitations. As NASA’s frustrated head of the SRB program, Lawrence Malloy, demanded: “Thiokol, when the hell do you want us to launch? Next April?” In the end, NASA placed the contractor in the impossible position of providing definitive proof that the SRBs would absolutely fail. Morton Thiokol management, over the objections of several engineers, caved…a decision many would regret for the rest of their lives. Even so, NASA had a senior Morton Thiokol executive give his company’s assent to the launch in writing. Clearly, such a CYA gesture was tacit admission by space agency officials that they knew all too well this was a serious risk. They went anyway.
The deeper the investigation probed, the clearer it became NASA knew they were literally playing with fire. And after the accident they were trying to paper over if not outright cover up their avoidable errors. So much so, in fact, that New York Times columnist David Sanger would reflect: “The thought rose in the back of our minds that this really wasn’t an accident at all. That this was more like manslaughter.” Ultimately, though, perhaps the true villain was the system itself. Herein lies a possible answer to the most obvious question surrounding the decision to launch in such dangerous conditions. If it was too cold, why didn’t they just wait until it was warmer? Why would they knowingly risk seven lives, not to mention a multi-billion-dollar orbiter? The answer was that NASA was operating under the constraints of a schedule that promised far more launches than they could deliver. Eventually the game of high-pressure Russian roulette they were playing with the lives of their crews caught up with them.
So what more relevant lessons can we take out of this horrible event three-and-a-half decades in the past? One is that government agencies — even the fabled NASA which has done so much incredible work — can be compromised by political priorities that supersede safety and even common sense. In short, government makes mistakes, sometimes with catastrophic results, and yet it is very slow to accept responsibility, let alone reverse course. One cannot help but wonder if there is a lesson to be mined from the Shuttle failures that is applicable to government responses to COVID today; to wit, the implementation of policies that have seen our economy decimated, millions of livelihoods upended and destroyed, businesses shuttered, our children’s educations sacrificed, the rate of suicides, addictions, and other social calamities accelerated, China’s power growing, faith in the electoral system severely diminished, while over 400,000 Americans have died anyway, and more to come. In the future, historians may look back on these times with as much dismay as we do those fateful days before Challenger went to its unnecessary doom. In the meantime, do not expect anything but a giant wagon circle when this latest national trauma finally passes. As far as government goes, the bigger the mistake, the more entrenched those who made it will become.
Still, as I look back on those dark days in 1986, the Challenger disaster showed the best of our national character. We collectively felt like we lost people near to us that day. And as often happens in tragedy, we really did grow closer as a country. I like to believe that is one legacy of Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. Seven good souls who, as Reagan reassured us while we struggled to make sense of it all, “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
Brad Schaeffer is a commodities trader and writer whose articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, National Review, Celeb Magazine, Zerohedge, Frumforum, and other news outlets. He is the author of the acclaimed World War II novel Of Another Time And Place
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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