Friday, January 28, 2011

A Quarter of a Century

There's a couple of events I remember clearly in my life. 9/11, of course, the afternoon Reagan got shot...

But the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster is right up there. I can recall being in class, High School, and everything stopping. Televisions wheeled into rooms, and watching what was going on. I gotta tell ya, it really is stunning to be that it happened a quarter of a century ago. I know people who weren't alive when the Challenger fell to Earth.

I was fourteen, by my calculations, when it happened. I was a hard-core nerd/sci-fi junkie, so the space program meant, and still does mean, a hell of a lot to me. I confess, I wasn't watching the launch that day (I was in school), and, yes, the idea of shuttle missions had become routine and...well, kinda dull.

There are many times I wish I could've been around to see the Apollo program. I can't imagine what it must've been like to watch those grainy black and white images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin climbing out of the LEM. I have a DVD of the live video feeds from the Apollo 11 mission, from launch prep to splashdown. Three DVDs filled with this primitive footage of three brave men stepping out into the unknown.

If something had gone wrong with Apollo 11, I can't imagine anyone would've been overly shocked. It seems, from the accounts I've read, that there was a universal understanding that, while we had dedicated maximum effort and resources to this endeavor, it was a difficult and dangerous journey. Every space flight is.

I think that morning in 1986, we had long forgotten that. The public, that is. I truly believe that every one of those seven souls on Challenger knew exactly the dangers and possible consequences they were facing. I truly believe it's impossible to be at their place in the program and not be. I think that's also reflected in the fact that all of the families of these lost astronauts expressed that exact sentiment.

But us? The public? It was a tragedy we had never seen before. We had lost astronauts, Apollo 1 had burned up on the pad during a training run, killing original Mercury astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom, as well as the first American to ever perform a spacewalk, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Those three men died in a tremendously horrible and, likely, unexpected way.

But they were on the ground. Burned to death in a sealed, pure oxygen environment. Strapped into their seats and with no way to open the hatch in time. The technicians outside couldn't get to the hatch to open it, because of heat and smoke. It only took seconds, but the three men were gone.

I often think that, for the astronauts, it was probably harder to think of dying on the pad, performing some routine test, than in orbit, or halfway to the moon. The Apollo 13 mission, so well documented at this point, must've seemed so much more logical. The type of thing you suspect might happen, in general, if not in the details. You see in the actions of that crew, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, they knew trouble might occur, and your job, as an astronaut, was to be flexible and adaptable enough to deal with anything that might happen.

Liftoff is a very dangerous part of the flight, but it's also a point where the crew is, basically, in the hands of ground control, and the craft itself. The great tragedy is, of course, that the latter simply failed. This vast, beautiful spacecraft exposed the failings of it's launch system design and construction, and took seven brave souls with it. Of course, now, looking back, we know the problem stemmed from the O-rings on the solid rocket boosters that propelled the shuttle out of the atmosphere. One of the rings ruptured, and sent a jet of super-heated rocket blast into the external fuel tank, which erupted into flame, and broke apart.

Challenger didn't explode, as most people remember it. It broke apart. It fell to Earth in pieces. This, of course, leads to all sorts of questions about how long the crew lived, and what their ultimate fate was. Did they live until the wreckage struck the water? It seems likely, but it also seems likely they were all unconscious most, if not all of the fall. It's not something to dwell over. The crew is dead, and dragging up how the last moments of their lives may or may not have played out will do no one any good, especially twenty five years later.

Yes, human error led to the disaster. Be it the design of the boosters, or the decision to launch in the midst of record cold Florida temperatures. There is plenty of fault to be found, and plenty that has been created, nurtured by the fringe of the internet. If you want details, there's a lovely, honest piece by former NASA designer James Oberg over at Oberg presents many facts, and defuses some of the more ridiculous claims.

Mistakes were made, warnings unheeded, but no one is to blame for what happened. The shuttle had launched twenty four times previously with no major incident. Sure, the NASA team may have become somewhat complacent, but the shuttle was constantly being improved and upgraded, just not quickly enough. There was pressure to meet the launch window for the payload on board. All of these things, however, had been in play before, and would be after. What happened on that January morning was that all of these issues combined into a deadly result.

I know Mr. Oberg takes some task with what I am about to say, but I truly do feel this disaster, and the more recent Columbia disaster in 2003, while not inevitable, are not entirely unexpected. NASA has launched one hundred and thirteen shuttle missions to date, and these two are the only ones to experience catastrophic malfunction.

Any loss of life is unacceptable, but we are all human, mistakes will always be made, accidents will happen. We're also dealing with craft designed to be used over and over again, unlike the craft of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Spacelab missions. Those rockets were used, burnt up, or floated off into deep space. They only had to work one time. The shuttle is asked to function over and over again, and as we all know form our own cars, or computers, eventually a machine is going to break down. You can check and re-check, but there's always a chance something will be missed.

Put into context, NASA's record is quite good.

Now, the shuttle program is winding down, probably rightly, being put into mothballs. We'll go back to conventional rockets again, and the vast majority of our manned excursions will be centered on the International Space Station. The shuttle was always a mistake. Sure, it was useful at times, but it was also a long, costly sidetrack from the other NASA plan presented to President Nixon (always comes back to Nixon, doesn't it?). A step-by-step plan to reach Mars sometime in the 80's.

We'll never really know if that would've worked. I tend to believe it would've, and how much further would we be now?

That aside, I take a moment to remember the Challenger, and her valiant crew.

Francis R. Scobee - Commander
Michael J. Smith - Pilot
Judith A. Resnik - Mission Specialist 1
Ellison S. Onizuka - Mission Specialist 2
Ronald E. McNair - Mission Specialist 3
Gregory B. Jarvis - Payload Specialist 1
Sharon Christa McAuliffe - Payload Specialist 2

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