I was watching the televised launch of space shuttle Challenger from my fourth grade classroom the day we lost seven astronauts. The horrific explosion was only 72 seconds into launch, shockingly brief, but something a child could never forget. Today, I can only imagine the sadness shared by NASA employees and the astronauts’ dear families. This was an iconic aviation disaster, the sort of image one might compare to the Hindenburg or airliners plowing into the World Trade Center. And it was awful. Today, we remember the loss of STS-51L: not a label for a space mission, but the seven humans that reached for something precious.
A NASA disaster summary of Challenger reads like a dry report from the National Transportation Safety Bureau, but underlines a warning for those who embrace technology. The smallest part, installed to perform a simple task within a grand machine, is susceptible to failure. Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair never knew about a defective joint seal in the starboard Solid Rocket Motor, or the combustible gas that would finish them.
It sounds like such a simple explanation. This was the sort of explanation that families struggled to grasp when other famous ships like USS Thresher and USS Scorpion met tragic endings. Like those departed submariners, STS-51L left us their own message to improve the system, make things safer, and protect the ones that follow. Engineers, pilots, programmers, inspectors, astronauts, and flight controllers have taken this message to heart. Space is a risky business. For the most part, the majority of NASA missions have been successful. But we can never forget the challenge to do better. Lest we forget, the memories of Apollo 1 and Columbia are still within reach.
Photo: NASA Archives