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Sat, Jan 28, 2006

Challenger Remembered: January 28, 1986

They Were All Teachers

Aero-Views OPINION by ANN Associate Editor Rob Finfrock

On the morning of January 28, 1986, I was home sick from the fifth grade. I awoke to the sound of my clock radio at exactly 11:20 am, Iowa time.

The station I had my clock radio set to -- Sweet 98, out of Omaha -- wasn't playing its normal rotation of Madonna and Huey Lewis. Instead, a news reporter was speaking in solemn tones. It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about.

"Repeating... less than an hour ago... we lost Challenger."

I sat in my bed, dazed. After a few seconds -- still a little woozy -- I rushed into the den, where my mom was napping. The television was off. She didn't know yet. "Mom... Challenger blew up," I said, shaking her awake.

She bolted upright with a start as I turned on the TV. For the rest of that day, we watched.

Twenty years later, I still can't believe it. Like it was for many in my generation, the loss of Challenger was the first "where were you when?" moment in my life. I'll never forget the chill that went down my spine... especially since I still feel it, every time I see the image of that cruel "Y" formed by the explosion of the external fuel tank, and the trails of the two errant SRBs spiraling away from the fallen orbiter.

Seven astronauts -- mission commander Francis R. Scobee, pilot Michael J. Smith, mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik, and payload specialists Gregory B. Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe -- died in the explosion.

It was the day I first learned that, yes, the sky can fall.

In the days that followed, news reports focused on NASA's efforts to figure out what went wrong. Across America, people who had perhaps only given cursory notice to the mission -- highlighted only by the presence of civilian McAuliffe, who was to have been the first teacher in space -- learned of the many delays the Challenger launch had faced. Liftoff of mission 51-L was initially scheduled for January 22, but a series of delays ranging from missed deadlines, to bad weather, to a stuck equipment hatch all conspired to bump the launch six days.

By the morning of January 28, everyone at NASA -- ground controllers, administrators, and the astronauts themselves -- wanted to get the launch over with.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, many speculated that rush to get the orbiter in space led NASA to ignore several safety precautions. Investigators soon focused on a telltale wisp of flame, seen on cameras in the seconds after the launch, emanating from an O-ring seal in the shuttle's right solid rocket booster.

Accusations flew. Engineers at Morton Thiokol, the company that manufactured the SRBs, claimed they had told NASA cold temperatures -- it was near freezing on the morning of Challenger's launch -- could cause the O-rings to fail to seal properly, allowing exhaust gases to escape.

A commission formed to determine a cause of the accident -- headed by former secretary of state William Rogers, and including Neil Armstrong and Chuck Yeager -- found that was exactly what caused Challenger to fall from the sky.

After a series of design changes and NASA shakeups, the shuttle Discovery flew the first post-Challenger mission on September 28, 1988, in a triumphant return to space. Like many across the nation, I crossed my fingers and prayed through the first 73 seconds of that flight as I watched it on television. The tension only eased, somewhat, after the fateful "go with throttle up" command -- which had immediately preceded the Challenger explosion -- passed without incident for Discovery.

For the next 13 years, the shuttle program continued to perform much as advertised -- and once again, it largely escaped the notice of the American public. The launches never happened as often as was originally promised by NASA, but they did occur frequently enough that a shuttle launch wasn't necessarily a noteworthy event.

Yes, news channels covered shuttle launches and landings -- but they did it with far less attention given to them, than was given to freeway chases.

Such was the routine... until another cold winter morning, in February 2002, that once again jolted America -- and NASA -- out of its shuttle slumber. As images of Columbia's fiery death over the skies of the southwestern United States were broadcast on endless loop that Saturday, people were suddenly asking what lessons NASA hadn't learned in the Challenger loss, and why seven more astronauts had to die for it.

Whereas I remember confidence in NASA back in 1988, I'm not sure NASA can answer that question this time around. Yes, Discovery flew last year -- the orbiter is NASA's proverbial Phoenix -- but it was then grounded, again, after it was shown the foam loss that doomed Columbia still plagued the program. The shuttle is supposed to fly again this summer... and once again, fingers will be crossed.

Maybe the foam problem is finally solved... but what others lurk around the corner, that may show themselves in the next four years before the shuttles are finally retired?

***

As our regular readers know, we tend to hold NASA's feet to the fire here at Aero-News. This isn't for the reason some of our more cynical readers might think. If anything, it's because we remember the golden days of the space program. Some of us were around for Apollo 11, if not Mercury or even Gemini (at least, we won't admit it.) We've seen what NASA can do at its finest hours, and the agency has had many.

We've seen it recently, as well: see Stardust, and New Horizons... efforts the staff at Aero-News followed religiously, and applauded.

Nor do we consciously berate NASA because we are emphatic supporters of private spaceflight. While we DO believe the future of aerospace will rely increasingly on private efforts -- a lesson NASA is learning, as well, with its Centennial Challenge -- we also believe, above all, that competition improves the breed.

Had NASA focused its efforts ten years ago on a concept similar to Rutan's SpaceShipOne... with the vast network of suppliers and resources available to a government entity... where might the space program be today? It's an interesting, completely hypothetical, question.

It's easy to forget that NASA isn't just another faceless government entity; it is made up of thousands of people, many who today work diligently to solve the problems presented to them by a 25-year-old space vehicle that, some would argue, was obsolete before it ever flew. No one would envy them their task.

But it's their job to perform it... because NASA alone currently holds the key to America's future in the stars. In the cases of Challenger and Columbia, lack of attention to detail doomed fourteen astronauts and two shuttles. It cannot happen again.

That is the lesson that NASA should reflect upon today.

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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