Thursday, January 28, 2016

Challenger - 30 Years On

(Back, L-R) Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, Teacher-in-Space participant Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis and mission specialist Judy Resnick. (Front, L-R) Pilot Mike Smith, commander Dick Scobee and mission specialist Ron McNair. (Photo by NASA/Getty Images)

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster.

You're going to see a lot of stories out there from those of us who were kids when the Challenger exploded.  As much as 9/11, the Challenger Disaster sticks out there for a lot of us privileged suburban kids, not just as our first exposure to real-life horror and an event that dominated the public consciousness for a week, but - I'd argue - possibly the turning point that ended an era of American Enterprise and Exploration that well preceded the space race, but had its roots in Lewis and Clark.

For Gen X'er's who saw space exploration as maybe the only thing the government did that we found of interest (aside from getting the mail), the next decade became a constant argument against accountants and weak-knee'd politicos that NASA was worth it, even as the military budget continued to balloon with stealth fighters, bunker busters and all sorts of innovative ways of killing people.

This mission was as important as any during the shuttle era, a practice that seemed so routine by the time I was 10 (having started just five years before) that, like the Apollo missions, eventually the public wasn't dropping everything to watch a launch.  The idea had become - it was too difficult to become an astronaut, and that meant folks were growing detached.  So, some superhumans got to go - what did that mean for us?

To get us paying attention, NASA recruited a public school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, a citizen with no flight experience, to give a window of the "everyman" into space travel.

It worked.  The public saw a glimpse of the possibility, embraced the idea an educator would be first among us, and it was the story du jour.  On the day of the launch, schools stopped lessons and millions of kids across the country were watching TVs on carts, rolled into their classrooms and using the rabbit ears to get a signal.

I was in 5th grade, walking from one of our auxillary classes like PE or Art, and we passed by one of the other classrooms where the class was watching the launch.  Our teacher walked us in as we had no TV set up in our own room, and I can still remember standing in the back of the room (a head taller than all the other kids, I was always in the back), and seeing the burst of smoke and twin trails emerge.  Watching a launch, as I said, was commonplace.  We knew what one looked like, and this wasn't it.

It wasn't fear - it was mortification and disbelief.  Some kids, the ones who were fuck-ups, anyway, immediately started cracking wise.  Even then, you could always spot the sociopath or the kid who couldn't see past the end of their nose.  You weren't allowed to just slug them.

I feel for those two teachers, suddenly saddled with 40 - 50 kids who had just seen God-knows-what on live TV.  They let us watch, though.  Let the steady voices on the screen keep talking, the voice of NASA retaining the same demeanor even as they described "obviously a major malfunction", and the news men trying not to go into hysterics on air.

After some time, we were walked back to our classroom, and then the next thing I recall was, first, watching the news footage before dinner, and the first time I'd ever seen an evening Extra Edition of the Austin-American Statesman show up on our sidewalk, just as the sun started setting.  I figured, later that night, this was what folks meant when they talked about where they were when they heard about JFK.

In the wake of the disaster, an investigation identified the problem - a faulty o-ring, they said.  There was even a TV movie about it.  We talked about the Challenger Seven.  The news carried it for weeks and into months as the debris started coming up from the ocean floor.

Now, not only had we lost our 6 astronauts, we'd lost the first member of the public.  A public school teacher had tried to go to the stars and was killed for her effort.  Somewhere on Madison Avenue, heads shook at what had to be the public reaction and failure of a PR stunt.

The accountants had screamed bloody murder about the space race before we ever stepped foot on the moon, and they still rail against NASA (and, really, anything that isn't a gun or tank no matter how many we've got).  Challenger gave them the excuse, and in the intervening years they slowly but surely chipped away, so much so that our Greatest Nation on Earth™ relies on the rockets of others to get our astronauts into space, has no real manned space program, and pretends like the collective efforts of our parents and grandparents reflect somehow on our own ability to achieve and explore.

In 2011, the shuttle program sent up Atlantis for the final and 135th mission of the program.  By then we'd also seen the Columbia break up over Northeast Texas on re-entry which both made us more afraid during a time of key governmental fear-mongering and gave more ammunition to the accountants.  "The shuttle program is old," they argued, refusing to point out how they'd killed plans to move beyond the same shuttle design that had debuted in the 1970's.

We hung it up.  There are no new frontiers, we agreed, and looked down at our smart phones and said we'd let the machines take it from here.

I miss the shuttle program, the routine exploration by our brightest and bravest, with the strength of the country behind them.  Like I said, it was the one thing that we did that seemed honest and selfless and seemed to be the will of the U.S. reaching further out now that we'd reached Manifest Destiny.  "Astronaut" was the dream job, right next to president, and over the next 25 years, that whole idea would be watered down, obfuscated from sight.  Kids would dream of becoming famous for being fabulous, their achievement a brand of shoes or selling a perfume at Target.

We've handed the space race over to the billionaires and industrialists, and we assume - for some reason - that they'll look to the stars with anything less than corporate ambition.  The utopias of science we imagined on the moon start sounding like prison mines of the last four hundred years as we expand out, locust like, eating whatever's in our path, leaving our carcasses around as a reminder.

Still, you have to like the moxie of the Space X guys and Musk.

The thing is, I don't think that as kids we saw the death of McAuliffe as a reason not to get on a shuttle.  It was all the more reason to do so.  We, too, could take those risks and at least have the chance.  We weren't mindlessly putting anyone at risk, we were including them in the great enterprise.  And, given the nature of those missions, walking away from what the men and women aboard our spacecraft were trying to accomplish hardly seems to honor their memory and service.

I miss knowing that the great challenge of placing someone aboard a rocket was something done, yes, for the glory of a nation, and anyone who knows the word "hubris" knows the word "Icarus" as well.  We're going to fall sometimes when we don't show the proper restraint.  But I miss having something to strive for and have to point to as the obvious sign that maybe we really were the nation we keep telling ourselves we are.


J.S. said...

Good post. I miss having a legitimate space program as well. I guess I just miss the days when our country matched the fear and anxiety of the cold war with a healthy share of optimism, confidence, and idealism. I would be hard pressed these days to be able to point to any large scale project that Americans would be willing to take on in the name of exploration or the expansion of human knowledge (at least, not without the promise of significant private profits attached).

mcsteans said...

Getting to see the Discovery on display in DC was the highlight of the trip for me. I will admit to tearing up a little.

I was home sick the day of the Challenger launch, but still watched it in my parents' room. It took me a few seconds to process what I was looking at, and as the folks were at work, I relied solely upon the newscasters to talk me through it.