OV-099 Challenger

Lest we forget…

Today is another dark anniversary in the history of space exploration. On this day in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger embarked on it’s tenth mission, and the twenty-fifth mission of the shuttle program overall. On board were a collection of scientific experiments, a specialized communication satellite, and the first civilian chosen to fly in space, a schoolteacher from New Hampshire named Christa McAuliffe.

Exactly 72 seconds after liftoff, the external fuel tank exploded, destroying the shuttle and killing all seven crew members.

Their names were Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, and Ronald McNair.

It was later determined that a faulty o-ring on one of the solid rocket boosters caused a runaway fire that ruptured a liquid fuel line, resulting in an explosion.

This was one of those events where you remember what you were doing and where you were. I was watching the launch from the common room of the Robinson-Falconio dormitory at St. Bonaventure University, where I was a freshman computer science major. At the 72 second mark, the room suddenly went deathly quiet. We couldn’t believe what we had just seen.

According to NASA legend, there was a shuttle astronaut who warned that eventually one of the shuttles would be destroyed during a mission, and cautioned NASA to not get complacent in managing the program. The astronaut’s name was Francis “Dick” Scobee, and he was Challenger’s final commander. There is some evidence to suggest that in the last seconds of the flight, Scobee and pilot Michael Smith were initiating the emergency detach procedure, which might have saved the shuttle and her crew, but we’ll never know for sure.

The effects of this tragedy are still felt today. At that point the space program had found a new role in our culture, and it carried a “can do” mindset that was infectious and inspiring. The loss of OV-099 (Challenger) dealt what proved to be a mortal blow to that view. Today, the space program is a shadow of what it used to be, and the collective response seems to be “no great loss.”

It’s a tragic and saddening loss that is difficult to describe. And the tragedy isn’t restricted to the space program. The adventurous, determined “can do” attitude that defined much of our nation’s history, and which the space program had come to represent, appears to be dying. Now, as a people, we seem more concerned with our own selfish personal agendas and no longer giving a toss about the common good. We’ve become more interested in doing what is profitable rather than what is right.

Those concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but they usually are.

The loss of OV-099 isn’t the sole reason for this change. A lot of things contributed to this collective change of heart. Where did things start to go wrong? There are several possible answers for that, and they all have some validity. I won’t claim to know when it started, but the assassination of John F. Kennedy may be a good place to start. Other key points could be the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the energy crisis of the 1970’s, to name a few.

Personally, I believe the loss of Challenger was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. This computer scientist turned historian will go so far as to suggest that in the aftermath of January 28, 1986, it became clear that the United States had somewhere, somehow, and at some point, lost it’s way.

But I’m pretty sure we can find it again, if we work at it. As a former president once said:

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
-Bill Clinton

I hope he’s right.