The Challenger legacy: there’s no space for complacency

28 Jan

I had the good fortune to be able to watch a Shuttle launch first hand in May 2010.

I went down to Florida with a good friend to take in the Space Shuttle Atlantis launch on STS-132. At this point the shuttle program was winding down, and we decided being able to see one was a ‘now or never’ sort of thing.

So off we went.

On May 14, just before 2:30pm Atlantis roared to life.

As anyone who has seen a launch, or pictures of it, you know how it looks. And having watched many on TV, I had an idea what to expect visually.

What I was completely unprepared for was the feeling of it.

We saw the light, the flames, the orbiter jumping off the pad, and then a few seconds later came the sound.

But this wasn’t just sound that you heard; this was sound that you felt.

Even at a distance of about 10 miles (16km) where we were watching from, you could feel the rumble.

You could feel the wind moving past you.

The excitement I felt, even vicariously, for the six crewmembers riding that rocket was incredible.

Thinking about how I would have felt if that amazing machine had exploded before my eyes is hard to imagine.

But on January 28, 1986 that is precisely what happened.

Exactly 73 seconds after launch, the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up.

All seven crew were lost as the television cameras rolled: Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Greg Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.

The crew of Challenger

The crew of Challenger

(Though being less than one year old at the time, this is not something I experienced first-hand.)

As it turns out, that rocket ride is only a semi-controlled explosion. And on this day, the ‘semi-controlled’ was not in the crew’s favour.

Safety limits were pushed.

The dangers were, either intentionally or not, under-estimated – and perhaps not even fully understood.

We have of course since learned what caused the explosion from a technical perspective: a faulty O-ring that couldn’t perform correctly in cold weather.

Though ultimately it was a human failure.

People knew the O-ring wasn’t designed to operate in cold temperatures, but due to complacency the decision was made to proceed anyway.

We know the result.

But in retrospect, one of the most amazing things happened following that: an incredible culture shift took place at NASA that removed much of the bureaucratic decision making and replaced it with evidence-based decision making.

That made this incredibly dangerous job just a little bit safer. But with so much on the line, ‘just a little bit’ can account for a lot.

The Challenger disaster also made people look inward and wonder how to move forward.

There were calls to cancel the Shuttle program.

Ultimately, and positively in my opinion (say what you will about the overall success of the Shuttle program) the decision was to build a legacy for those seven astronauts.

Because in the end space exploration is a dangerous job. We’re fooling ourselves if we thought that no life would ever be lost on a flight into space. We’re still fooling ourselves if we think it will never happen again.

It will – and indeed did happen again, when the Shuttle Columbia was lost along with her crew in February 2003.

But we can learn lessons from the past to make sure we’re being honest with ourselves – and the people flying the missions – about what the chances of failure are.

And so we continue to explore space. There is a space station the size of a football field that flies 400km over our heads. There is international cooperation that has brought together bitter enemies.

Our desire for exploration continues and our gaze now looks even deeper into space, to places like Mars.

These missions though are built upon the shoulders of Challenger, and the most important lesson we ever learned –albeit the hard way: we will never again be complacent.

In the time following the loss of Challenger, numerous people offered their take on the disaster:

Our nation is indeed fortunate that we can still draw on an immense reservoir of courage, character, and fortitude, that we are still blessed with heroes like those of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Man will continue his conquest of space. To reach out for new goals and ever-greater achievements, that is the way we shall commemorate our seven Challenger heroes.
— President Ronald Reagan

All of a sudden, space isn’t friendly. All of a sudden, it’s a place where people can die. . . . Many more people are going to die. But we can’t explore space if the requirement is that there be no casualties; we can’t do anything if the requirement is that there be no casualties.
— Isaac Asimov, regards the Challenger investigation, on CBS television show 48 Hours, April 21, 1988.

We fooled ourselves into thinking this thing wouldn’t crash. When I was in astronaut training I asked, ‘what is the likelihood of another accident?’ The answer I got was: one in 10,000, with an asterisk. The asterisk meant, ‘we don’t know.’
— Bryan O’Connor, NASA deputy associate administrator Space Shuttle, interview in Space News, January, 10 1996.

To venture into space we must be strong-willed and determined. We must be fully committed to its exploration and discovery; space permits no half measures and is unforgiving of mistakes.
— Henry Joy McCracken, LM, November 1997.

(This article also appears on Sun News Network)

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