Friday marked the 25th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger--an event that itself marked the end of a new generation's innocence about the wonders and safety of space travel. I say "new generation" because the Apollo generation had already had one of those moments, when Apollo 1 caught fire on the launch pad during a test, and its three crew members--Guss Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chafee--burned to death before rescue crews could get to them.
In some ways, however, the Challenger shock was greater, because the shuttle program had been sold to Congress and America not as a space exploration mission, but as a safe, reliable "Space Transportation System" (hence the numbering of shuttles STS-6, STS-82, etc.). Recall that promoters promised that the new, reusable space vehicles would be able to launch every two weeks--a promise that never even came close to coming true; indeed, never had a realistic chance of coming true. Even today, we are not at the point of having safe, reliable space transport at our disposal. And Challenger is still a valid, cautionary tale about how we view NASA's role in research and innovation, and the expectations we put on the agency.
In my mind, what makes the Challenger story so tragic isn't that there was a civilian teacher on board. It was the disconnect between what insiders knew at the time and what the public was being told, or sold. Yesterday, the NPR program All Things Considered aired a piece of an interview that Christa McAuliffe, the "teacher in space" who was killed in the Challenger explosion, gave a few days before the launch. In the interview, McAuliffe said she believed that the shuttles were safe. It's jarring to hear her voice, so chipper and cheery, asserting what we all know now to be dreadfully untrue.
But if the public thought the shuttles were safe, the shuttle commanders never had any such illusion. Every shuttle commander I've ever interviewed has underscored, vehemently, the uncertainty and risks shuttle flights entailed. And Commander Dick Scobee, Challenger's commander, apparently knew the risks, as well. Barbara Morgan, the back-up teacher for McAuliffe, was also interviewed on the All Things Considered segment. Morgan had trained with the crew, just like McAuliffe, and the NPR host asked her if she had thought about the risks. Morgan answered that she'd thought mostly about the excitement about going into space, and what it would mean. But, she added, Commander Scobee had sat her and McAuliffe down at the beginning of the training and talked to them about the risks.
I got a little more specific answer when I met Barbara Morgan at a NASA event a number of years ago. Scobee, she told me then, told the crew down at the beginning of training that they should consider the Space Shuttle a one-way ticket. They might return home again, but the risks involved were so high, they shouldn't expect that. And if they weren't okay with that notion, they shouldn't go.
Regardless of how they were sold to the public, the truth is that the space shuttles were experiments in exploration, every time they launched. And if they'd been positioned that way, the pressure to launch on schedule might not have been so great, on that cold January day, 25 years ago. And the Challenger accident might not have happened.
But the dangers of selling NASA as an agency that manages successful space flights--regardless of whether the vehicles are carrying humans to near-space or robotic missions to Mars--go beyond increased risk of accidents. It also keeps NASA from doing the very thing that NASA was created to do; namely, to take on the cutting-edge, high-risk challenges of aeronautics and space exploration that nobody else can, or has the incentive, to do.
We look back fondly on the audacity and innovative, explorer's spirit that energized the early days of the U.S. space program--and which led to so many kinds of innovation and discovery. But part of the reason those breakthroughs happened was that NASA's work back then was a) less public and b) more tolerant of failure. Getting to the moon was an astronomical target, after all. Failure was expected, along the way to success--if success was even a plausible or attainable goal.
Apollo 1 was the one early space program failure that became highly visible, because human astronauts were lost in the process. But fully one-half of the Atlas rockets used in the Mercury program blew up or malfunctioned. The ones that blew up just didn't happen to have humans on board. And the people involved accepted the risks that came with exploring this new territory.