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Nolan's Pop Culture ReviewOn The 25th Anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
POSTED BY NOLAN B. CANOVA, January 29, 2011    Share

They say you always remember where you were when significant events occurred or took you by surprise. For a baby-boomer like myself, that's usually things like the JFK assassination, the first Moon landing, and more recently (to include younger folks), 9/11.

But I'll bet everyone over the age of thirty also remembers where they were when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off 25 years ago this week, January 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts, including first-time civilian Shuttle passenger, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. The tragic accident was blamed on faulty "O"-rings loosened by an especially cold Florida morning in the 20s.

The subsequent public-relations nightmare it raised for NASA very nearly killed off the Space Shuttle program. For the first time in my life, a scientific endeavor-gone-wrong had initiated a national debate over whether scientific progress was worth these kinds of risks.

Please understand, I don't want to come off as unsympathetic to the tragedy of losing these astronauts and especially an innocent civilian in what was essentially (and ironically) a space-agency marketing maneuver to "humanize" space travel and research. Like nearly everyone else in the United States, the young schoolteacher's students were all watching the lift-off on TV that morning. The explosion was a traumatic thing to witness.

After the initial shock wore off, NASA, previously the bastion of leading-edge technology that got us to the Moon, was suddenly targeted as a bunch of over-zealous boobs who didn't really know what they were doing. The subsequent question-dodging and finger-pointing didn't help that image. The conclusion about "O"-rings seemed awfully trivial to explain such a calamity. The Space Shuttle program was put on hold for at least two years.

We'd had similar accidents before, albeit not on such a spectacular scale. The flash fire in an Apollo capsule during a launch pad test that killed three astronauts occurred 19 years earlier nearly to the day as Challenger. While that was an awful thing, it did not stop, or even slow down the Moon-landing program. And we'll never know how many scientists and volunteers were maimed or killed over the last hundred years developing new technologies that we enjoy or employ today. It was seen as unfortunate, but a necessary hazard.

As we know now, of course, the Space Shuttle progam eventually resumed, although not totally without further incident. The Shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry in 2003, essentially disintegrated, killing all seven of its crew members. It was blamed on a wing damaged at lift-off. Though there was a prolonged investigation, it did not sear the national conciousness the way Challenger did. The death of Challenger's Christa McAuliffe forever mollified the empathy felt for space professionals who are fully aware of the risks they take very day.

Today, the 35-year-old Space Shuttle program is nearing its end, with a new batch of space-planes being developed. What few craft survived the original program will soon be museum pieces.

There has been political rhetoric bandied about for several years regarding future Moon and Mars landings. Those are, by all accounts, quite a ways off yet. In view of the Space Shuttle's history, I can see how critics might be emboldened to declare anything past close-earth orbit a near-impossibility without catastrophe. This is an over-reaction. We've done it before and we'll do it again.

Despite the Challenger's distinct and tragic chapter in space-travel history, it would be wise to remember the hundreds of missions that did go well and provided useful service to this country, to say nothing of the tons of data accumulated.

We just need the national will to go forward.

R.I.P., Christa McAuliffe, Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik.

"Nolan's Pop Culture Review" is ©2011 by Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2011 by Nolan B. Canova.

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