Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The Blight Upon the Sky

I was in kindergarten when the Challenger……”happened.” Its hard to know what to say to describe it: “malfunctioned” sounds so mechanical and impersonal, “exploded” sounds vulgar……what then? As a 6 year old, I certainly didn’t know or comprehend, and 21 years later I really haven’t come up with a better answer. Sure, there’s *explanations,* the government has proffered the faulty O-ring as culprit. But, the end of the Challenger was a bigger event akin to Kennedy’s death and 9/11. People remember where they were, how they heard, how they felt, what they saw. It was one of those rare and tragic events that every American at that time shared: equal to the pride and hopefully optimism that the space program represented to so many was the sense of loss when such a gruesome, ugly failure was plastered across the sky.

I was in kindergarten in Longwood, Florida, not far at all from the launch site at Cape Canaveral. Later our classes would visit this place on field trips, and aspire to be astronauts and scientists surrounded by the wiry machines, the metallic manifestations of human achievement. Our class would watch every launch, and if you didn’t live in Florida, you might not know how many there were. It was a common event, but of course, all of us were in awe every time. Today, 21 years ago, we were standing out in the sunny Florida winter, heads pointed towards a sky full of puffy clouds. Even at that age, we knew something had gone terribly wrong. A launch, but stalled halfway. A firework, fiery pieces streaming away from the place where they had been part of a whole, a thing with a mission. Smoke set the backdrop, an ominous cloud, a dark nasty spot in the blue and white sky. No longer pointed skyward, but made suddenly heavy like a popped balloon deprived of helium’s buoyancy. We all asked a million questions of our teacher, who’s face was white and taut. The next thing I remember we had all gone home, my parents stony-faced upon picking me up, a blight still upon the sky.

Comments

  1. #1 John C. Welch
    January 29, 2007

    I was…well, a tad older, 19 in fact. I’d grown up with the space program. In fact, any launch that was televised required my dad to let the school know I wouldn’t be in due to education.

    So I’m watching, and it just happens.

    One second, astronauts, next, debris, with a booster spinning off on its unbalanced way. Watching stuff fall, and realizing that “stuff” had a much deeper meaning. Hoping they were all dead because we never saw parachutes.

    Watching Dan Rather lose his mind.

    I was old enough, and such a NASA fanboy that the names White, Grissom, and Chaffee still had a deeper meaning than names on a list. My only thought was…”Yep…it’s still dangerous. Let’s hope it wasn’t because of something stupid”

    I was terribly disappointed when Feynman showed that it was in fact, because of something stupid.

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    January 29, 2007

    Years later, I met an astronaut who came to speak to UM Neuro because he had worked on NeuroLab in the space station. It was just dinner, and he was a fascinating guy, but I certainly was in a little bit of awe of him for (for lack of a better word) “surviving”. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Challenger. All of us students at the dinner were the same way (we talked about it later). We thought it terribly impolite to ask him about it, but at the same time, it was the one unifying experience that all of us had had in respect to NASA and space exploration.

  3. #3 Kagehi
    January 29, 2007

    O-rings.. No.. The problem was a program with no funding, unless they got it from the Military, who wanted someone to build a fracking C-whatever cargo carrier with a bloody jet pack strapped to it, so they could launch satellites, and who couldn’t quite get it throw their heads that the design was bad, the technology was sub-par do to lots of factors, and more to the point, it would cost more as time progressed than building a *good* system that just happened to have the unfortunate consequence of not being about to ship 3 ton spy satellites into orbit.

    I don’t blame NASA near as much for failing to think “smaller and cheaper” as I do the government for pretending it could work with no funding and the military for telling them, “do it our way and build our damn elepha… I mean mouse, or you won’t get money from us either!”

    Sadly, too many people saw the failure not as a failure to do things *right*, but as a failure to recognize that people shouldn’t be up their, so we should just send machines. Now.. NASA is rapidly becoming a dinosaur, which can’t progress effectively, while private companies are on the virge of success, because, in no small part, they are doing what NASA wanted to do prior to the shuttle, and building things that “work”, not just things that haul lots of crap into space. Meanwhile, NASA’s had a string of failures, nearly all of it due to the same lack of funds, the need to fob off half the project to other people, including other countries, and an unfortunate rash of, “Lets get this done on schedule so we can prove ourselves again!”, mentality that sadly results in them failing to check “basic” things like if units of measure between two different parts, from two different countries, actually match each other.

    Its sad, but unless something changes, NASA is dying. And talk about going back to the moon isn’t going to change that, since unless the funding went up *a lot*, we will probably see some nut building a rocket in his basement get there before they do. I can’t honestly say if that is a good thing, or a bad thing.

    But yeah, Challenger definitely stuck in my mind. Both due to the initial, “What the heck went wrong?”, but later due to the, “Why the hell didn’t anyone involved, except for NASA, who had their hands basically tied, give a shit about making sure it never happened in the first place?”

  4. #4 #1 Dinosaur
    January 29, 2007

    I was an intern, doing a NICU rotation that month. Always a space fan (when I was in second grade I wanted to be an astronaut; it wasn’t until third grade that I made the mature, informed decision to become a physician) I had nevertheless lost track of the day-to-day status of the shuttle launches. I confess that my first thought upon hearing of the accident was, “Please let it be the one with the Congressman.” I was as heartbroken as everyone else to hear it was “the one with the teacher.”

  5. #5 knobody
    January 29, 2007

    this is just a bad time of year for nasa. 27 january, apollo 1. 28 january, challenger. 1 february, columbia.

    i was in 9th grade. a friend told me. i didn’t believe her. i don’t think i believed it until our teacher came in and confirmed it. i’m still not sure i believed it for quite a while.

  6. #6 rod.
    January 29, 2007

    Shelley, that’s a beautifully personal “report” of a sad and tragic event (“disaster” may be more appropriate than “event”). In normal circumstances, I’d congratulate you for a very well written text, but in such a sad context, congratulating means little.

    I was 4 when the Challenger was lost. I don’t remember any of it (I don’t remember anything before summer 1986, when my bro was born and the world soccer championship took place in Mexico). Chernobyl was in 1986 as well, and I remember nothing. Sad that the first 4 or 5 years of my life are such a blank… lol

  7. #7 Travis Newby
    January 30, 2007

    I, too, was a youngster at the time (6 years old), and had been taken out of school to watch the launch at home. It is one of the few vivid memories I have from that frame… I remember walking outside afterward and it being very sunny and very cold (especially for the South).

    Over the years it has been learned that while the disaster can be classified as an accident, it was certainly an avoidable accident. Before launch, Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) engineers presented data to management that showed trends that suggested the o-rings could be compromised cold conditions. However, due to pressures from NASA to make an already slipping schedule, and hence keep up good PR, the SRB managers overruled the engineers and gave an OK for launch.

    The pressures posed by NASA onto the SRB managers – and their subsequent giving-in despite strong data suggesting they give a no-go – are often cited as textbook examples of groupthink (that is, pressure exerted for dissenting members to relent and go with the group).

    Of course, that begs the question “Why was NASA pressuring the teams to give a go for launch?”. For a good discussion of NASA, their culture, and even more of their mistakes you can go to Edward Tufte’s website. He covers the subsequent Columbia disaster in great detail and shows how, yet again, NASA managed to make a poor decision despite the data.

  8. #8 blipey, FCD
    January 30, 2007

    I was in 8th grade, but was home sick. I was taping the launch for my step-dad and watching it live. I was a science nerd way more ten than I am now and thought it was cool that I got to watch the whole thing uninterrupted by classes.

    I remember bein completely silent for a couple minutes and then calling my step-dad to tell him what happened. I watched all day and continued to tape. I just set the tape aside and didn’t watch it for more than 10 years. I was very sad, for the astronauts’ families, but also for what I perceived as a 13 year old as a small death for NASA.

  9. #9 Monado
    January 30, 2007

    I think I remember the announcer going on about how high they were when they were already spread all over the sky… just following the script for a successful launch and not looking. I was old enough to think about calling a friend who was interested in space exploration but then thought, no, he must know already. Then to hear that the launch was outside of safe parameters for the O-rings! And why did they need O-rings? Because it was important to build some of the craft in different states and that meant it had to be built in pieces that then had to be stuck together and sealed with O-rings. Good old politics!

  10. #10 Monado
    January 30, 2007

    I think I remember the announcer going on about how high they were when they were already spread all over the sky… just following the script for a successful launch and not looking. I was old enough to think about calling a friend who was interested in space exploration but then thought, no, he must know already. Bud I didn’t call and he didn’t hear til later.

    Then to hear that the air temperature at launch was outside of safe parameters for the O-rings! And why did they need O-rings? Because it was important to build some of the craft in different states and that meant it had to be built in pieces that then had to be stuck together and sealed with O-rings. Good old politics!

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