Twenty-five years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated in the skies above Florida’s Space Coast, killing all seven astronauts on board and any illusions anyone may have had about space flight being routine, or safe.
The cause – technically – was a rubber O-ring that failed to seal a joint at lift-off, allowing hot gases from inside the right Solid Rocket Booster (the slim white rockets that sit on either side of the Orbiter at launch) to leak out against the External Tank (the large, rust-colored tank the Shuttle hitches a ride on), eventually causing an unscheduled separation. With the stack heading spacewards at thousands of miles an hour, physics did the rest.
The real cause, however, was the decision-making culture at NASA: levels and levels of managers meant that no one person had all the information, the technicians on the front lines felt uncomfortable voicing concerns to their administrative superiors and an ever-decreasing budget not only squeezed safety aside by itself, but made NASA eager to please their Cheque-Signer in Chief, President Ronald Reagan.
It was the culmination of all this that led to Challenger being launched that morning in January 1986, despite freezing temperatures at the pad and in spite of the efforts of engineers at Morton Thiokol, the company who had built the SRBs, who had tried to stop the launch.
The loss of Challenger was made all the more tragic by the fact that Christa McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space, was onboard. I remember getting a jolt on my first visit to Kennedy Space Centre when I realized where I recognized the spectator stands from: footage of McAuliffe’s parents with their faces lifted towards the sky, watching the launch first with joy, then with confusion and, ultimately, horror.
The camera never left their faces. With their back to the launch pad, the camera operator may not have realized what was happening.
There are plenty of books about the Challenger disaster, the events proceeding it and the investigation after it. (The same investigation during which one of the most wonderful characters ever to grace science, Richard Feynman, dramatically demonstrated the O-ring problem by dropping a piece of one in a glass of iced water and then snapping it in two.) But for a different perspective and a wonderful read, I recommend Margaret Lazarus Dean’s novel, The Time It Takes to Fall.
“It is the early 1980s and America is in love with space. Growing up in the shadow of Cape Canaveral, young Dolores Gray has it particularly bad: she dreams of becoming an astronaut. At school, Dolores finds herself caught between her desire for popularity and her secret friendship with the smartest and most unpopular boy in her class, whose father is NASA’s Director of Launch Safety. At home, discord begins to grow between her parents when her father’s job as a NASA technician is threatened. Looking for escape, Dolores loses herself in her scrapbook, where she files away newspaper articles about the astronauts and the shuttles, weather reports on launch scrubs and stories about her idol, Judith Resnik. Then, on the morning of January 28, 1986, seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger explodes, killing all seven astronauts on board – including Judith Resnik. It is a moment that shakes America to its core, and nowhere is it more deeply felt than in Central Florida. Dolores becomes determined to reconstruct what went wrong, both in her parents’ marriage and at NASA, in the hope that she can save her father’s job and keep her family together. The Time It Takes to Fall is a coming-of-age novel that deftly weaves the story of one family’s drama into the larger picture of a touchstone event in American history. It is at once an intimate look at a young girl’s loss of innocence and a portrait of America’s loss of innocence – the end of an era that romanticized manned space flight and would never be the same again.”
I discovered this book in the stacks of my favorite Barnes and Noble in Orlando in 2007, the same year I finally realized my own life-long dream (all twenty-five years of it, at that stage) of witnessing a Space Shuttle launch – STS-120 that October. As I started reading it, I had that very rare pleasure of feeling as if I was reading a book written just for me. It’s a poignant read and an accomplished debut. The beauty of it is if you’re interested in Challenger and Florida’s Space Coast there’s plenty there for you, but if you’re not, the real life events, facts and figures are woven so delicately into the narrative that they never overshadow the story.
I’ve always felt a connection with Challenger, even though in January 1986 I wasn’t yet four years old. I think it’s because documentaries and news reports about the disaster were probably my first introduction to the Space Shuttle and from there, the manned exploration of space. (And Space Camp!) Much, much later, I discovered a real connection: Challenger was delivered to Kennedy Space Centre, ready to be prepped for its first mission, on July 5, 1982 – the same day I was born.
Did the crew of Challenger die in vain? NASA changed drastically in its aftermath but yet in 2003, its shuttle mate Columbia disintegrated during re-entry. A hole in its wing, created by a suitcase-sized piece of foam that struck it during launch, had allowed lethally hot gases into one of its wheel wells.
The shuttle is on the doorstep of retirement; there are only a few launches left. Let’s just hope that whatever form the future of manned space exploration takes, it learns all the lessons that these tragedies can teach. And NASA does have an admirable safety record when you consider that out of all the NASA missions – from Mercury which began in 1959 through Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and then since 1981, the Space Shuttle – the Challenger and Columbia tragedies remain the space administration’s only loss of astronaut life during space flight.
The manned exploration of space will always present an inherent risk, but there is never a good reason to be reckless.
Read Dean’s blog, The Time It Takes to Blog. It hasn’t been updated in a while but there’s some really interesting space-related stuff on there. I decided to risk being mistaken for (or recognized as) a gushing fan, and emailed Margaret to see if she had any plans to write another novel. She IS working on another novel (although it’s not space-related) which is great news, because I think Dean is too good of a talent to just give us the one book. She also confirmed that The Time It Takes to Fall wasn’t published on this side of the pond, but look what I found: the paperback available on The Book Depository for just €8.10, and free worldwide delivery! So now you’ve no excuse. Honestly if you have even a passing interest in the Space Shuttle or Florida’s Space Coast, or you just want to read a really good book about coming-of-age and the American family, (or you enjoy Curtis Sittenfeld; I think they’re quite similar), then I highly recommend it.