The Challenge of Space Flight

Suddenly and for the first time I saw Amanda as a little child wide eyed with both awe and fear, among other children some sitting on the floor, some in chairs, some standing behind desks, eyes trained on a TV monitor and their teacher as the sudden realization dawned on all of them that the Space Shuttle Challenger had been consumed in a fiery, deadly explosion.

The teacher on board was incinerated before their very eyes. As the explosion developed, shooting out huge arms of smoke and the voice-over began to acknowledge that something was wrong, NASA’s space program was suddenly transformed, in the eyes of the innocent little children of America almost all of whom were watching the event live, from a somewhat interesting science project to a place where teachers went to die. I had never really visualized Amanda as a little girl before, but a few years ago when this came up, on the Anniversary of the Challenger explosion, this image formed as a lump in my throat.

I’m a few years older than Amanda, so my experience was a little different. I had just returned form the Congo. I had borrowed a car … a Laser, which is a sort of sports car … and driven downtown to a friend’s apartment over an Italian restaurant and tavern, and parked it on a snow bank out front. That’s normal for Upstate New York. By the time morning came, the car was more than a little stuck, so I called Triple-A to pull it out.

I made the call from the tavern, and while doing so I noticed that the Challenger launch was being shown on the TV. So I stood at the bar and watched the launch. And the explosion. When the tow truck came, I mentioned to the driver that the Challenger had just exploded. He thought for a moment and said, shaking his head slowly, “You’re not gonna get me on that thing. No sir!” I thought … yeah, that might be a tough sell from this point forward.

It is said that when NASA started the Shuttle program, they made an estimate of risk of death to those who would be on board. Given the number of flights and the number of deadly events and the number of those killed, they’re apparently right in the expected range. I’ve not been able to confirm that estimate.

In any event, it turns out that space travel is dangerous. We recently remembered the tragic death of three astronauts on the launch pad, during a test, which came to be known as Apollo 1. In a few days from now, we’ll have the anniversary of the deadly destruction of the Columbia shuttle during re-entry. (Phil Plait has a few thoughts about this, here.) Four cosmonauts died during space missions as well.

Story Corps has a video about Ronald McNair, one of the scientists on the Challenger:

Amy Shira Teitel has a summary of January’s historic events in space travel:

Comments

  1. #1 L.Long
    January 28, 2013

    With the explosion some near me made the comment that he’d near go one one cuz it is too dangerous! I turned to him and stated that if NASA needs volunteers for the next flight I’m ready to go!! I don’t even have to think about it, I would be happy to go.
    But the Danger!!! No more so than driving your car and any accident would be a LOT less painful then a car accident!

  2. #2 Artor
    January 28, 2013

    Unforunately, I’d read that when they dredged up the wreckage of the Challenger’s cabin, they found that the astronauts had drowned. They lived through the explosion, the fire, the several-mile fall and the impact on the water, andbut drowned when they sank. Yikes!

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    January 28, 2013

    I don’t think they drowned, but some may have been conscious for the long fall to the surface of the sea.

  4. #4 Birger Johansson
    January 29, 2013

    The astronauts could have been saved if NASA had retained the ejection seats that were available for the first shuttle launches. The shuttle had not yet gained too much velocity for a successful ejection.
    Ironically the space launcher with the best safety record is also the oldest: The venerable R-7 (or “semiyorka) whose different versions have served Russia from Sputnik-1 to the current Soyuz journeys. By contrast, NASA always goes for brand new rockets with all the technological “frills and whistles” the congressmen can get, to favor the aerospace companies in their home states.

  5. #5 Al
    January 29, 2013

    There were only ever two ejection seats fitted to the shuttle.

  6. #6 Birger Johansson
    January 29, 2013

    “There were only ever two ejection seats fitted to the shuttle.”

    Which was a major design flaw then and there. Even Gagarin and Glenn had better escape options.
    If necessary, design the crew compartment as an integrated escape module*.
    * At the orbiter’s center of mass, giving it a chance of ejecting even if the shuttle was rotating wildly after losing a wing.