Twenty-Five Years Since The Challenger Explosion

from the and-what's-happened-since dept

There are those “big events” where you always remember where you were, how you heard about them, etc. Things like JFK’s assassination or 9/11. And, for me, there’s always the Challenger disaster. I remember, because I was in elementary school, and for the only time ever, the school just suddenly turned on the PA system to the entire school and started broadcasting the radio reports live, right after the explosion. There was no initial explanation — just suddenly the radio blaring over the intercom. Everyone was confused at first, but it became clear what happened pretty quickly. It turns out that was 25 years ago today. The link there takes a look at what’s happened to NASA since the Challenger disaster, including how it really tried to fix up safety efforts, and how it ended up getting complacent again, leading to the Columbia disaster in 2003. Today, NASA is still in trouble, and there are efforts to cut its budget drastically (while, at the same time, there are increasing, but still small, efforts at private space flight). I don’t have much to say about this, but the space shuttle was a fixture of my youth, and the Challenger explosion was a big moment, so it’s interesting to look back 25 years later.

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Comments on “Twenty-Five Years Since The Challenger Explosion”

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Berenerd (profile) says:

Re: Was that today...?

Mine was a tv in the library. I had just come in from recess in 5th grade. We were going to be taking the classes with the teacher that went up. I was so excited and for a while wanted to be a scientist. I can’t say this day changed it for me, but when I think back as to why this incident does come to mind.
The government doesn’t want to support going into space because people die because we don’t fully understand what space is. People would rather wallow in their on little world and don’t want to believe there is more to the world than what we walk on. Knowing what is out there will help us survive. Besides I want a phaser gun to shoot aliens with!

Eugene (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I could’ve swore the chase happened during summer vacation. My family went to Disney World that year, and we watched it from the condo’s TV.

Definitely remember seeing the trial results in school though. That was either geology or physics class, I can’t remember. I DO remember not giving a rat’s ass what happened, and hoping that there would be a power outage right before the Judge declared his ruling.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

I wasn’t even one year old yet. However the iconic picture of the explosion itself persists in my memory with no origin – I can remember that photo as far back as I can remember anything at all.

For a really fascinating look at Challenger, check out any of the collections of Richard Feynman’s writing that include his speech to NASA after the disaster. He is rather ruthless in his condemnation of their decisions, if I recall correctly.

The same collections usually include the lecture where he introduces the Cargo Cult idea, and also his notes on his time working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project (alongside Oppenheimer, Bethe et al). Pretty much everything the man did and wrote is amazing.

Joe Publius says:

Thank you DH, Marcus

For making me feel old, even though I was only in the second grade when it happened. My memories are actually hazy surrounding that day. Second grade was far more memorable for my first (and only) trip to the principal for trying to trip another kid while standing time out in the hallway.

Man, I was a bastard when I was seven.

Anonymous Coward says:

I was in 9th grade Algebra. The teacher wheeled in a TV cart and we watched for a while, then the principal came in and called me to the office.

When we got to the office, my parents were there to pick me up. I was thinking “wtf? I know it’s a tragedy and all, but you don’t have to pull me out of school for this!”

A few minutes later I learned that my grandma had died that morning.

Forge (profile) says:

I remember.

My dad worked for RCA Astro-electronics at the time, and I was a huge NASA/Shuttle nut. We had cable TV (NEW and EXCITING) and he used to get me up early to watch the shuttle launches, I think they were on CSPAN. I remember seeing the cloud billow out, and pieces flying forward and to the sides, and turning to my dad, to ask what had happened. He had left when I wasn’t paying attention, and missed it. I was quite upset, though more about the lost Orbiter than the people who died (I was four, perspective wasn’t strong).

Vidiot (profile) says:

Re: Just call me Gramps...

I’ll join you in the old age home…
We were shooting a motivational corporate video that morning — based the shuttle! You can imagine… “aim for the stars”, “let your performance soar” and all that. Horrible confession: our first thought was that our theme/concept had evaporated – shoot cancelled. About two minutes after that, especially after seeing the TV reports, it hit home, and we stood slack-jawed and teary like everyone else.

Nelson Cruz (profile) says:

I remembered it was a few days after my birthday but not the exact date. I was 9 at the time and remember well seeing it on the news at dinner time on my grandparents house. I was very sad and shocked, and I’m not even American. But I always was a sci-fi fan and thought this was a big setback for humanity. And the shuttle program was indeed suspended for several years.

As you can imagine I’m also not happy that the shuttle is being retired without a replacement. I can’t believe the US is going to depend on the Russians and their old Soyuz capsules for several years! If I was American I would be seriously ashamed by this!

Darryl says:

NASA is a mirror of the US in general - never quite able to get there.

It was a tragedy, but it was no accident, the problems with the O-Rings were well known.

It’s symtomatic of the USA in general, lots of big idea’s and plans, but not so hot on execution.

But ofcourse you have to cut back on things like NASA, after all you have a few failed wars to fight, that’s got to be more important right !!! 🙂

It’s good to see the US has it’s priorities set right !.

Who is the world leader in space these days, Oh thats right its Europe.

or the leader in technology ? or the leader in financial competance ? or the leader in the Auto industry ?

Leader in computer tech? No.

Umm, just exactly what skills and IP does the US have anymore ?

and no I do not hate the US, I kinda like the place, been there a few times. But it’s politics, and its bearing is lost. ie, the US has lost it’s way, and has to rely on China to make ends meet.

How long do you think you can sustain that for ?

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 NASA is a mirror of the US in general - never quite able to get there.

Well…yes, yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the Challenger explosion AND Darryl’s comments rarely made sense….. Today is…..different.

Next someone will tell me that a politician somewhere actually listened to their constituents passed a sane law.

Steve R. (profile) says:

Re: NASA is a mirror of the US in general - never quite able to get there.

The first space shuttle launch was in 1981. Obviously the technology used back then based on that in the 1970s. What is sad, is that we have not replaced the space shuttle with a new model. How many of us still drive a 1980 vintage car?

But as Darryl points out, the failure to advance our space program: “It’s symtomatic of the USA in general, lots of big idea’s and plans, but not so hot on execution.”

The last scheduled space shuttle flight will be in June 2011. We have no replacement shuttle. Seems that we will have to rent from the Russians should we need to undertake any manned missions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: NASA is a mirror of the US in general - never quite able to get there.

“It was a tragedy, but it was no accident, the problems with the O-Rings were well known.”

Perhaps I should look up the definition of accident? Hmmm… “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury.”

The o-rings were potential problems. So were millions of other things, as the shuttle is one of the most complex machines designed by man. When faced with that many unknowns, you go on probabilities and make the call.

The bird had flown before under similar circumstances. They thought it would do so again.

They were wrong. It wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t stupidity. It was just that, this time, the probabilities caught up with them.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: NASA is a mirror of the US in general - never quite able to get there.

The phrasing “it was no accident” might have been a little harsh, but honestly the launch was much more irresponsible than you make it sound. IIRC, neither of NASA’s top safety administrators gave their approval, and both formally disassociated themselves from the launch when told it was going ahead anyway. The o-rings were not just one of a million potential problems, they were a major flaw that several engineers and physicists had pointed out, only to be ignored.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Space Travel Is Dangerous

What could have been done differently? People act as though the accident was entirely down to stupidity or something. Space travel is a complicated, expensive business?so many things can go wrong, you can guarantee some of them will. Humans will always make mistakes.

Even right back to the Apollo program, which I think you?ll agree is still the zenith of the US?s achievements in space: six astronauts died in that. And there could so easily have been more fatalities?Apollos 12 and 13, for example, both came this close to ending tragically. In a sense I suppose Apollo was lucky that worse things didn?t happen.

The right attitude to take to tragedies like Challenger and Columbia is not recriminations and blame-passing, but simple analysis of what went wrong and how to do it better next time. Yes, we mourn the dead, but as heroes, not as victims. That?s the attitude the Russians seem to have taken, and they have suffered a lot more fatalities in their space program than the US. And as a result, they have ended up with more dependable, albeit less flashy technology, like the good old Soyuz capsules, which are basically 1970s technology, but still considered reliable enough to be used as lifeboats on the International Space Station.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Space Travel Is Dangerous

I partially agree with you, but there was a lot of evidence in the Challenger case that suggests it was more than an innocent accident – it was at best a major failure of communication, and at worst a seriously negligent culture at NASA. From Wikipedia:

More broadly, the report also considered the contributing causes of the accident. Most salient was the failure of both NASA and Morton Thiokol to respond adequately to the danger posed by the deficient joint design. However, rather than redesigning the joint, they came to define the problem as an acceptable flight risk. The report found that managers at Marshall had known about the flawed design since 1977, but never discussed the problem outside their reporting channels with Thiokol?a flagrant violation of NASA regulations. Even when it became more apparent how serious the flaw was, no one at Marshall considered grounding the shuttles until a fix could be implemented. On the contrary, Marshall managers went as far as to issue and waive six launch constraints related to the O-rings.[37] The report also strongly criticized the decision making process that led to the launch of Challenger, saying that it was seriously flawed.[38]

“…failures in communication… resulted in a decision to launch 51-L based on incomplete and sometimes misleading information, a conflict between engineering data and management judgments, and a NASA management structure that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key Shuttle managers

Nelson Cruz (profile) says:

Re: Space Travel Is Dangerous

The Soyuz isn’t just the lifeboat for the ISS. It’s one of the ways astronauts and cosmonauts get up and down from the ISS. And after the shuttle retires it will be the only one!

It’s been upgraded over the years, but it still is based on a Russian design from the 60s(check wikipedia). Old cheap Russian tech. It was the equivalent to the Apollo, designed to reach the moon. There where some fatal accidents at first, but since it has been in use for 40+ years, along with its rocket, it is considered the safest and most cost effective platform to transport humans to and from orbit.

Still, if was American I would feel a bit ashamed that NASA won’t have an alternative for years and will have to buy tickets on the Soyuz. Why isn’t this a matter of national pride? And what about if Hubble or some other telescope needs repairs again? Nothing but the shuttle can do it! USAF has a kind of shuttle, but it’s small and unmanned as far as I know.

trench0r (profile) says:

I sawr it all go down in grenada

Not really, thats a quote from NBK.. but I do live on the “space coast” of florida, I was also in elementary school.. but since we could see the shuttle just by going outside, thats exactly what we did..

Even as a small child, I knew that we would fly again. We shouldn’t cut NASA’s budget, it is something we can all point to and say “this is where smart people do great things” and to the people who cite its “large budget”.. I think you should look it up.. it makes up about 1/2 of 1% of the federal budget…

Rather_Notsay (profile) says:


Shows what an old fossil I am, compared to the average TechDirt reader. I was working at the Space Shuttle plant in Downey, California. It was like a death in the family. Reporters were hanging around the canteen across the street, trying to grab a quote.

I still have the special edition of the Long Beach Press-Telegram. That was the only time I’ve ever seen a newspaper with “EXTRA”. But there was no newsboy shouting “Read all about it!” There’s no reason to expect that there ever will be again.

And, yes, when you play around with large quantities of highly energetic chemicals you’re bound to get burned sooner or later. That does not mean that the Challenger accident wasn’t avoidable. The evidence that they had entered a dangerous situation was there. The Thiokol engineers understood why that particular launch was much more dangerous than the previous ones. They did a miserable job of communicating it. See their presentation in “The Challenger Launch Decision” by Dianne Vaughn and tell me with a straight face that you would have done anything different. I have presented their charts to a senior level engineering class as a textbook example of a rotten presentation. All that soft and squishy stuff sometimes matters.

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