Fire on the Deep: Narrative in the Shuttle Challenger Disaster

On the morning of January 28, 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart, seventy three seconds into its tenth flight off the coast of Florida. All seven of the crew aboard were killed. Among them a young 37 year old schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe. A native of Concord N.H., who had joined NASA to teach lessons from space to children across the country in order to sustain and enhance public interest in the Space Shuttle Program and STEM careers.

It had been unseasonably cold that morning, so much so that a thick sheet of ice had gathered on the Launchpad where the Challenger rested like a frozen comet. At 36 degrees Fahrenheit, Bob Ebeling and four other Morton Thiokol engineers had warned NASA prior to launch of the danger posed to the Shuttle by these low temperatures. Dangers that laid within the O-rings that connected the Shuttle to the right solid rocket booster. NASA officials disregarded their warnings and decided to go ahead with the six day mission.

NASA had a lot to prove in 1986 — the Cold War that had fired the engines of the Apollo program, was thawing out. Reagan’s administration, now in its second term, was successfully bringing the U.S.S.R. to the table. NASA realized that to continue at the pace it had grown accustomed to, it had to prove it could economize space. And so the Shuttle program was born in an attempt to normalize space, and root NASA firmly between heaven and earth for lucrative — and no less necessary — civilian and military contracts.

Media coverage was extensive, hundreds of people, among them the families of the Astronauts, watched from the fields of Cape Canaveral. Schoolchildren watched on TV sets that had been put in their classrooms in preparation for McAuliffe’s first lesson, and CNN broadcast it live to millions. And by the evening of that day President Reagan addressed the nation and the world from the Oval Office.

America had up till then been confident in its technological prowess, and the Shuttle program was the latest and the greatest demonstration. From their inception the public had been fascinated with them, even going so far as to successfully lobby The White House in order to change the name chosen for the first Shuttle from Constitution to Enterprise, after the much loved spacecraft of the fictional Star Trek TV-Show. The national response to the image of the Shuttles breakup and the ominous cloud it left behind was one of shock — Elmer Thomas, a mechanical engineer who had worked for NASA for eighteen years, suffered a heart attack and died the next day. Over five thousand mourners gathered on February 1st and held a candlelight vigil by the sea for the courageous crew. President Reagan that evening vowed, ‘We’ll continue our quest in space.’

A thirteen member committee was swiftly formed and given one hundred and twenty days to determine the cause of the tragedy. This committee included famed Physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Richard Feynman, renowned for his ability to illustrate complex ideas in simple ways for laymen. In a televised hearing on February 11th he demonstrated how the O-rings failed completely at a temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving no room for NASA’ management to obfuscate. The direct result of the commission’s report and extensive media coverage of the investigation was NASA ceasing to be America’ darling, its image as an incorruptible haven of science in an otherwise corrupt sea of government bureaucracy was gone. Consequently NASA made over one hundred changes to the Shuttles design and emphasized safety over the launch fever that had led to the accident. The Challenger disaster revealed that NASA had been making unrealistic claims about the Shuttles capabilities — advertising it as a ‘space truck’ in order to procure funding from Congress. As well as to attract business from the military and private companies who had begun to require more and more infrastructure in space to further their own goals and would be willing to pay to get it. Subsequently the Department of Defense, which had already been leery of its dependence on the Shuttle, began developing alternatives. Scientist also complained of the long queue for access to the Shuttle, for which they would need to compete with the Department of Defense for the only craft capable of putting their technology into orbit. It was decided that the next Shuttle Endeavour would be used exclusively for defense and major scientific operations. With the removal of this heavily subsidized competition Space became a place for private companies to operate in for the first time. That morning was the day the music died for many ordinary Americans; they saw the aura of invincibility that NASA had carefully constructed stripped away.

NASA itself had fallen prey to its own public relations campaign, since the beginning of the space program the organization had been very aware of its self-image. The first Shuttle Enterprise had been attached to a booster painted in white, a color proposed by President Eisenhower to bely the Cold War realities of the American Space Program and the military industrial complex that helped it become a reality. Even the name ‘Shuttle’ had been picked for the program out of rivals like the more illustrious ‘Pegasus’ for the standardized effect the former name gave and with that sense of standardization the false sense of normalcy and reliability. NASA was going to finally succeed at doing something that had up till the Shuttle program eluded them; they were going to make money. Using the available rocket technology at the time it would cost — allowing for inflation — roughly 2179$ per pound but NASA claimed it could perform up to 180 separate missions per year at the reduced cost of 218$ per pound. Boasting of a 30-ton payload the Shuttle was the workhorse capable of making President Ronald Reagan’ Strategic Defense Initiative a reality. Intriguingly NASA saw fit to dispose of the all-white paint scheme around this time and the Challenger was fitted to an unpainted orange external tank which was indicative of NASA’ new business model of the dollar bottom line. This was opposed to the young idealistic organization that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon. This message of a cheap and easy space program was a major disservice to Humanity, and perhaps what is more disturbing is the seeming ease with which the American public forgot the majestic narrative of the Apollo missions and with it the whole justification for the space program. This, it seems to me, is the real reason for NASA’ aimlessness over the interim decades between 1986 and approx. 2010. The spirit of commercialization was allowed to supplant that of discovery and the betterment of mankind — though we see this hope being rekindled with every new unmanned Mars mission. Even so commercialization is a valid reason to go to space. From GPS to cell phone cameras the obstacles overcome in the course of the Space program have permeated the everyday lives of people worldwide for the better.

I think the importance of not allowing ourselves to be overtaken by narrative — like NASA was that day — is one of the main lessons. Unlike Icarus, the Challengers wing on the sunward side did not suffer but the cold chill of a shadow reached out and both fell.

When the green light message went out to the Challenger, despite all the warning signs — like Daedalus instructing exuberant Icarus — from manufacturers and engineers, it went out because of a terrible combination: that of fear combined with hubris, something infinitely more volatile than the hydrogen oxygen mixture that was used to propel them into orbit. NASA failed to be responsible, they were afraid of the repercussions of not delivering a fantastically convenient space travel scheme, but I think also that we as a people also contributed to the dynamic powers that played out across the sky above Florida that day. We should never listen to anyone — priest, politicians, scientist, generals, doctors engineers, or yes even college professors, without the mental caveat that we are all human and so we are all fallible. I believe the crew of the Challenger never believed the hype, I think they boarded their ship knowing that the possibility of failure was very real, and I think that that makes them heroes. What do you think?

Doveryai, no proveryai; trust, but verify.

Lolcat in residence.

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