Like everyone else in my generation, I remember January 28, 1986 very well. You could say it was the Kennedy assassination moment for us. Everyone can tell you where they were when they heard about the Space Shuttle disaster.
On the recent anniversary of that terrible day, I was travelling with my family, and I didn’t have the right amount of time to put the events from the past in the right perspective. And I’m glad for that because today, just after the anniversary, I came across something that explains what happened a little bit.
The information was printed in the Chicago Tribune on January 27, 1986. It’s something of a collector’s item, because the Bears had won their first (and so far, their only) Super Bowl the day before. So nobody was really hanging onto the daily paper for any reason other than da Bears. But hanging onto that day’s paper did allow a little bit of light to slip through about the Challenger disaster, too.
The headline, appearing on page 3 of the front section, reads “Space shuttle, teacher forced to take day off.” The launch hadn’t happened yet, and looking at it a quarter of a century later–and knowing how it all went down–is a powerless feeling. If only they knew in Florida back then what we know today.
The launch was supposed to take place on Super Bowl Sunday itself, but was pushed back because of cold weather conditions in Florida. Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from New Hampshire, was planning to teach a lesson from space, and it was going to be broadcast live by PBS. Clearly, that never took place. Rather than being inspired by the mission, and the teacher who was on it, the space program suffered a devastating setback instead. I can’t imagine a more terrible turn of events for NASA.
But a paragraph in the middle of the story really caught my eye. It reads as follows:
“Delays in this Challenger mission are of particular concern because of NASA’s ambitious schedule of 14 and possibly 15 shuttle missions this year.”
The Challenger mission, and a Columbia mission scheduled to lift off on March 6 of that year, were intending to study Halley’s Comet. The timing of these missions was said to be “critical” for being able to study the comet the way that they wanted to. And so rather than continue to push the Challenger launch date back, and thus jeopardize the Columbia mission and the busy year they had planned for 1986, NASA forged ahead in less than ideal conditions on Tuesday the 28th. And the results could not have been any worse.
I remember all of the jokes that were making the rounds after the explosion occurred (NASA=Need Another Seven Astronauts, and so forth). I was taking high school physics at the time, and “go throttle up” was a code phrase in the lab for “something bad is just about to happen.”
If you weren’t there at the time, it’s hard to appreciate how different the world was back then, without any internet, smartphones, and even so much as a laptop computer. It makes you wonder if all of this technology would have prevented what took place on that Tuesday morning back in early 1986. Because the human element–especially the part that gets frantic to meet deadlines, and thus is not as careful as it should be–will always be a factor.
May the families, friends, and students of Ms. McAuliffe, and the others who died that day, take comfort from the fact that their service to this country, and to scientific knowledge as a whole, is still remembered all these years later.