Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Challenger Anniversary

Like most Americans, I remember quite vividly watching the Challenger disaster on television. I don’t think I watched it live, but of course it was on every channel within minutes of the explosion. I had two connections to this event, one from the past and one in the future. 8 months before the Challenger disaster, during spring break in my senior year in high school, I was at the Kennedy Space Center and got to watch the shuttle Discovery launch into space. It was an incredible thing to watch, and I’d been prepared for it by a song.

One of my all time favorite bands, Rush, has a song on the Signals album called Countdown. The song was written after they were invited to watch the launch of the first space shuttle flight in 1981, and in concert when they performed the song they had the video of that launch on a huge screen behind them as they played. The song captures the feel of such an event perfectly. So when I got the chance to see it launch in person, I jumped at it and drove several hours from my mom’s house in Sebring to Kennedy to see it go up. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. And with that experience so fresh in my mind, watching the shuttle explode was particularly jarring.

The future connection was many years away. When I first became involved with Papa John’s Pizza back in the early 90s (I was an area supervisor for several years for a franchisee), I became good friends with another supervisor named Steve Feldberg. His mother, it turns out, was a teacher and she was the runner up to Christa McAuliffe in the competition to go on the shuttle. It could very easily have been his mom dying in that disaster.

There’s no doubt that, for my generation, there are two equivalents to the “where were you when Kennedy was assassinated” question from my parents’ generation. One is the space shuttle explosion; the other, obviously, is the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Both are burned in our memories forever.

Comments

  1. #1 razib
    January 29, 2006

    One is the space shuttle explosion; the other, obviously, is the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

    yes. i talked about this with a friend last night, i can’t think of any other two incidents of comparable note.

  2. #2 kermtzu
    January 29, 2006

    I was thinking the other day that this must have an actual beneficial effect (evolutionarily speaking). A vivid recollection of a horrible event would prevent one from attempting to recreate or re-experience a similar event, and thus, survive, simply by remembering it so clearly. Agreed that 9-11 and the Challenger are the two moments seared into my brain (too young for JFK’s death). I hope there are no others joining those memories any time in the next few decades.

  3. #3 hemlok
    January 29, 2006

    Along about ’89 or ’90, I was involved in a project that gave me access to the Internet. Now, of course, there was no worldwide web, but there was email, usenet, gopher, various online databases and modes of communication. Some asshole, for wont of a more disparaging term, from NASA leaked the transcript of the cabin recorder on the ‘net. Now there weren’t a lot of people with net access in those days, and it didn’t make a big splash in the press or anything, but my curiosity overcame my reluctance and I read it. Ed, it is something I regret to this day. Not only did I have no right to that data, it was horrible and heartbreaking. I suppose that, like so much digital information, if you look for it hard enough you’ll find it, but let me strongly recomend that you do not. I wish I could unread it…

    mikey

  4. #4 oolong
    January 29, 2006

    Lit up with anticipation,
    We arrive at the launching site
    The sky is still dark, nearing dawn,
    On the Florida coastline

    Geez, Ed. I’d nearly forgotten that song. I was also in senior year of high school at that time, and “Signals” was almost always inserted in my walkman at that time.

    I did see it live — freshman year, college, watching it from my dorm room.

    I’ll never forget it. A very sad day.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    January 29, 2006

    hemlok points up something I think most don’t realize about the disaster – the shuttle didn’t blow up. The explosion in the sky was from fuel. I think most people think that they died instantly from the explosion, but that apparently is not the case. The shuttle kept going up for a bit, then fell and crashed into the ocean and it took almost 3 minutes for that to happen, during which time they were apparently alive.

  6. #6 Dave L
    January 29, 2006

    “I wish I could unread it…”

    Actually mikey, I’m betting the transcript you read was a fake:

    http://www.snopes.com/horrors/gruesome/challenger.asp

    It is likely that that some of the astronauts survived after the break-up, as a few of the air packs had been activated. They weren’t wearing personal recorders, and as the link above notes, it’s unlikely any audio tapes survived being in the sea for 6 weeks. I know I at least had read the faked transcript above, which I also would have liked to have unread at the time thinking it was true. To me it’s chilling enough that it’s possible some of them were conscious for the fall back to earth, but if so I’m glad that it looks like their last words were either not recorded or kept private.

  7. #7 Dave S.
    January 29, 2006

    hemlok points up something I think most don’t realize about the disaster – the shuttle didn’t blow up. The explosion in the sky was from fuel. I think most people think that they died instantly from the explosion, but that apparently is not the case. The shuttle kept going up for a bit, then fell and crashed into the ocean and it took almost 3 minutes for that to happen, during which time they were apparently alive.

    Yes, the shuttle apparently tumbled out of control when the main tank was burned off at Mach 2, and shear forces essentially tore it to shreads. The crew, at least some of them, apparently did survive for a time. It’s unknown if they lost consiousness after a few (10-15) seconds and never regained it or were consious for the entire descent.

    Hopefully the former.

    Note: Very few actually saw it live. Only CNN carried the launch itself, and few had CNN in 1986. Most people watching on network TV saw taped relay.

  8. #8 Roman Werpachowski
    January 29, 2006

    A vivid recollection of a horrible event would prevent one from attempting to recreate or re-experience a similar event, and thus, survive, simply by remembering it so clearly. Agreed that 9-11 and the Challenger are the two moments seared into my brain (too young for JFK’s death).

    “Note to self: avoiding flying space shuttles and working in building targeted by international terrorists”. Easy to do and how beneficial!

  9. #9 Heathen Dan
    January 29, 2006

    Richard Feynman’s conclusionary line for the Shuttle disaster is prescient in the the current “Republican war on science”:

    “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

    The NASA engineers didn’t fool nature with their defective O-rings, and the present White House’s PR will not fool nature that there’s no human-induced global warming.

  10. #10 decrepitoldfool
    January 29, 2006

    This might sound picky, so forgive me; but the o-rings were not defective – they were installed in defectively designed SRB joints that released compression on them as gas pressure raised on the internal walls. Also, the roundness of the joints suffered from a somewhat chancy procedure and combinative tolerances. The most fundamental defect was the rather bureaucratic design process and priorities.

    This is important because many technologies depend on organizational design, from nuclear reactors to storm levees. A ‘don’t rock the boat’ culture guarantees non reality-based decisions.

    That Feynman quote is one of my favorites.

  11. #11 Darren
    January 30, 2006

    I’m guessing Heathen Dan wouldn’t like my 5-post series called Environmentalism and the Skeptical Mind. If you’re interested, you can type that into the search engine at the top of my blog.

    I have my own Challenger-related memories posted at http://rightontheleftcoast.blogspot.com/2006/01/remembering-challenger.html I invite anyone interested to come take a read.

  12. #12 Perry Willis
    January 30, 2006

    I also remember clearly where I was when the Challenger accident happened, but for me John Lennon’s murder was an even more traumatic event.

    I suppose, in part, it’s because I was already soured on the Space Shuttle. I thought it was not the right step for what we needed to do in space. I felt the Shuttle was a technological mistake, and a clear sign that NASA had lost the zeal of the Apollo years and was now just another government agency. Indeed, the Challenger accident was a clear sign of that, although it has only become clear in recent years what a wrong-turn the shuttle was.

    Space travel was inherently dangerous. Anyone going up in any rocket knows they are putting their life at risk. But Lennon couldn’t have expected the same risk from crossing the sidewalk to his home.

  13. #13 bourgeois_rage
    January 30, 2006

    I was a young child when the Challenger had its critical failure. At the time I was in kindergarten, and we had classes in the afternoon. The thing I remember was waiting for the bus while the TV played over and over the video that was all have seared into our memory.

    For me the other two memories seared into my memory are the Columbia accident, I rememeber waking up at my girlfriend (now wife’s) house and hearing it on the radio and just being shocked.

    The other is obviously September 11th. That whoel week was weird for me. I was in my college marching band camp at the time and the director stopped rehearsal and started to ramble about people doing stupid things. We were all looking around like has he finally lost it? Then at the end he told us what happened and gave us a five minute break. He said there wasn’t anything we could do and just to move on. For the rest of that week we only got updates on the radio and never got see video of the building until we got back. Certainly a strange feeling that I won’t forget.

  14. #14 Dave S.
    January 30, 2006

    The other is obviously September 11th. That whoel week was weird for me.

    I was working and hadn’t heard anything at all about it until I went to a dental appointment I had sheduled for that afternoon. On the way there I listened to the radio on my Walkman and I remember looking at the other people on the bus with amazement…is this for real? As if I could tell just by looking at their bored faces. Then I spent the afternoon getting my teeth cleaned while watching replay on the TV mounted in the ceiling of my dentists office. That was weird.

    I don’t actually remember where I was for Challenger. I do remember I was getting ready for work as a busboy when Reagan was shot. And I remember being on a hammock at my cousin’s house when I head Nixon had resigned.

  15. #15 Bill Ware
    January 30, 2006

    Like most, I caught the reruns. What a sinking feeling. Our hopes and dreams flew apart with the wreckage.

    I recall the endless reruns from 9/11.

    I was at the cadet dining hall for lunch when they anounced that Pres Kennedy had been shot.

    However, the most momentous historical event for me was the footage of people tearing down the Berlin Wall. I gathered the children to the TV to watch as the people took their pry bars and sledge hammers to the concrete. I told them I didn’t want them to miss the most significant event in their lifetimes or mine. Fifty years of duck and cover were over.

  16. #16 CPT_Doom
    January 30, 2006

    When I first became involved with Papa John’s Pizza back in the early 90s (I was an area supervisor for several years for a franchisee), I became good friends with another supervisor named Steve Feldberg. His mother, it turns out, was a teacher and she was the runner up to Christa McAuliffe in the competition to go on the shuttle. It could very easily have been his mom dying in that disaster.

    IIRC, NASA still lists that teacher as the next to go into space. There has been some talk about having a teacher go up, and she would be first in line (although time may be slipping by fast enough to prevent her from physically qualifying).

    That was a very dark day, I think worse than the Columbia disaster because: it was first, the crew had not gotten into space and because of the civilian on board.

  17. #17 spyder
    January 30, 2006

    Perry’s point is all too important:

    “I felt the Shuttle was a technological mistake, and a clear sign that NASA had lost the zeal of the Apollo years and was now just another government agency.”

    Below me in the basement are several archival file boxes full of the history of the US Space program; this doesn’t count the ones i have sent to NASA historical archivist. My father was one of this country’s principal scientist/engineer propulsion experts beginning in the late 30’s. He began warning his sons in the early 70’s that NASA had begun to fail to properly prepare for the proposed future shuttle missions, nor to develop any alternatives to the single system focus that became a boondoggle of disaster, waste, pollution, and expense. Testing of materials and processes were limited, as “administrators” and “managers” took over roles that needed to be led by designers and engineers with vast experience. Whatever your take, be it synchronicity, coincidence, cosmic muffin ID, the video at the end of the 1983 Hopi prophesy film Koyaanisqatsi was a perfect preparation for those of us witnessing the Challenger, and the subsequent failures. Unfortunately, there will be more.

  18. #18 Beaming Visionary
    January 30, 2006

    I was discussing recently with a high-school classmate that we could remember in near-excruciating detail where we were and what we were saying and doing at and after 11:37 a.m. on 1/28/1986. We were sophomores at the school where Christa McAuliffe taught, so perhaps it’s not surprising that even 9/11 almost trifles in the vivid-recall scale in comparison. It was surreal: the gathered TV journalists switching gears and scurrying after teachers and students, seemingly all of whom were either tottering about in a daze or crying. A peternaturally quiet brand of chaos.

  19. #19 Roman Werpachowski
    January 30, 2006

    However, the most momentous historical event for me was the footage of people tearing down the Berlin Wall. I gathered the children to the TV to watch as the people took their pry bars and sledge hammers to the concrete. I told them I didn’t want them to miss the most significant event in their lifetimes or mine. Fifty years of duck and cover were over.

    You know it wasn’t the first communist regime falling, don’t you? Months earlier, for the first time in the communist block, a non-communist government was formed in Poland. Why people prefer to excite themselves over a few tons of rubble is beyond my comprehension.

  20. #20 hemlok
    January 31, 2006

    Kennedy Assasination: I was in elementary school. Our teacher wheeled in a tv and made us watch it. I have a vague memory of it, but we really didn’t understand what was going on.

    Nixon Resigns: I had just got home from tennis practice and my mom and sister were glued to the tv watching the speech.

    Reagan Shot: Having lunch with friends at a bar in San Anselmo called Teds. They turned it on the TV. Quite frankly, at that point, we weren’t particularly exercised.

    Challenger: Had just become unemployed on Jan. 1st, was still in bed when my roommate came in and told me of the crash. I thought he was kidding or exaggerating. No such luck.

    9/11: Once again, unemployed. But in this case I was a dot.bomb victim and had been unemployed the entire year of 2001. I was sleeping in, vaguely noticing my phone kept ringing and ringing and ringing. When I finally got up about 8:30 I had like 30 messages, all close to identical: “Om my god, mikey, turn on your tv!!!”. So I was den mother that day, got everybody to get out of their offices and come to my house. We sat, drank, ate, smoked, cried, hugged and cursed. Nobody wanted to leave. As horrible a day as it was, there was something powerful in that bond that day.

    As a side note, A&E ran a movie the other night about flight 93. I simply couldn’t watch it. I really don’t want to relive anything about that day, except maybe for the love and closeness of friends and family, and how we treated each other for a couple weeks…

    mikey

  21. #21 Pieter B
    January 31, 2006

    The Challenger blowup was the first day I realized I was getting older. Around noon I was talking with a friend in the cardiology department office — I worked at a medical school at the time — about the day and whether we’d remember where we were like we had when JFK was shot. A young woman who worked in the same office and had been there for at least a couple of years interrupted us after a few minutes saying, “I hate to say this, but I wasn’t even born then.”

  22. #22 Roman Werpachowski
    February 4, 2006

    I just remembered this now: my mother told me that she, in Communist Poland, had cried too when she learned that Kennedy was shot. He was one hell of a scoundrel to his wife, but a great president and popular in Poland for his opposition to the Soviets.

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