Challenger, 25 Year Later

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.

Scott Crossfield, a NASA test pilot who was the first pilot to fly the X-15 rocket plane (an early idea for a "reusable launch vehicle" that eventually flew six times the speed of sound and above 300,000 feet) told me once that when he discovered the X-15 was being equipped with a $5 million ejection/escape system, he told the designers he'd fly it sitting on a tomato can if they'd give him the $5 million.

"I fully expected to die flying one of those airplanes I was testing, one day," he said with a shrug.

The point isn't how cavalier or macho the early test pilots or astronauts were. It's that all of the folks working on NASA projects back then were painfully aware that they were working at the risky and unpredictable edge of knowledge. Yes, amazing advancements were made. But not without cost. Aside from the many rocket, system and technical failures along the way, no fewer than eight American astronauts died in training accidents during the 1960s: five while flying jets and the three men in Apollo 1. Not to mention the number of test pilots who were killed advancing aeronautical technology during that same era.

And yet, despite the failures and the deaths, there were no cries to shut the space program down. Part of the reason may have been fear of Russian dominance in space, which was more intolerable than the loss of a few astronauts. The accidents and failures also didn't play out on television, in real-time, in front of an audience of millions. But part of it was also an acceptance--not only on NASA's part, but on legislators' and the public's part, as well--that we were pushing into the unknown. Success or results could not be predicted with certainty. Surprises were going to ambush us. And just as with previous generations of explorers, there were going to be losses along the way. That acceptance gave NASA room to maneuver. To experiment, try higher-risk approaches and, in the process, push the boundaries of knowledge outward in ways we still admire.

Today, on the other hand, NASA's efforts are all very public, and they are expected to succeed. Not after a string of failures, but right out of the gate. Just like the shuttles were expected to deliver so well that they could be forced onto a launch schedule more suitable for a production aircraft than an experimental space vehicle. And so--at least in the human space flight program--we get missions with negligible scientific benefit that make us wonder what our investment is really getting us, instead of bold discoveries and innovative advancements. What's more, we still get failures and accidents, because even timid space flight and exploration is still a journey into the unknown. We may have learned how to get satellites to distant locations and a space vehicle to low earth orbit, but that's not the same as really knowing or understanding those realms. (And yes, this has implications for commercial space flight, but that's a topic for another day.)

There are other problems that NASA has and faces, of course (See this post I wrote earlier this year on the subject). But the issue of risk and failure is worth thinking about, because successful innovation, exploration and discovery don't happen in a vacuum of sunshine. "We choose to go to the moon and do the other things," President John F. Kennedy said in his famous space speech in 1961, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

The death of the Challenger astronauts, like the death of the Apollo 1 astronauts, was a heartbreaking tragedy. But the legacy of Challenger shouldn't be to make NASA so safe that nothing ever goes wrong. It should be to recognize and respect the scope of the challenges still posed by exploration off the planet, and to shift our expectations and demands of NASA accordingly. It should also be to encourage the agency to take on more of the hard and risky problems that only a willingness to endure failure ever allows you to solve.

This post originally appeared on James Fallows's blog.