The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

For NASA and its constituents-people looking forward to the spacefaring nations of the world-the Challenger disaster was a chaotic moment of shock. The mishap set the space program back by at least a decade, and it showed those over a certain age that the “next big thing” might not happen while they can still witness it. This traumatic period in U.S. history illustrates very clearly how dangerous innovation and exploration are, despite continual advances in the supporting technologies.

Were it not for the political benefits reaped from some previous accomplishments-lunar landings, a lot of TV coverage, and Tang among them-it is highly likely that the Nixon Administration would have seriously curtailed funding for NASA. Nixon’s focus before he allowed Watergate to destroy his presidency was on foreign policy. The more money funneled into trade and foreign relations, he hoped, the more likely the U.S. was to be perceived as a very strong actor on the world stage. It was, for its day, a worthy goal, and Mr. Nixon effectively pursued it.

In January 1986, many Americans lost an important measure of the awe with which the Aeronautics and Space Administration had been viewed. It had a lot to do with the flawed process by which this spacecraft came to be on the launch pad at all. Engineers for the government suspected, and engineers and managers for Morton Thiokol knew, that critical damage had likely been done to the gas-sealing O-rings of the solid rocket boosters lifting the Challenger spacecraft. All those in charge were aware of the weather anomalies, and most knew that low temperatures such as those on the pad that day might contribute to further damage, if not total disaster.

The final decision to launch despite all documented warnings came from Morton Thiokol, but it was NASA’s responsibility to ride herd on its own managers’ enthusiasm for a “big show.” Both management responsibilities and common sense failed at this point, and those who were most directly involved in the decisions will never forget what they did and the decisions they could have, perhaps should have, made to protect the lives of the astronauts and Christa McAuliffe that day. Challenger’s unnecessary destruction will forever be remembered as an event that stopped an intrepid team of scientists and explorers from fulfilling their dreams and America’s destiny.

Challenger is also a blot on the scientific history of this country. Only through courageous action by another generation of engineers and managers has the U.S. space program gotten somewhat back on track. Even now, there is a tightening in Americans’ collective stomach when launch time approaches.

Somehow NASA has kept flying; someday humans will move beyond low Earth orbit, which is not “outer space,” and return to more ambitious exploration, with potentially magnificent scientific and historical returns. Maybe there is still time for the hopeful to see a “big show.”