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The Challenges of Challenger January 28, 2010

Posted by craftlass in NASA.
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N.B.: I apologize, I haven’t been blogging lately. I’ve been involved in a lot of projects lately that have eaten up my time and creative energies and apologize that my first post back here is on such a sad subject, but it is one very dear to my heart. It may be disturbing to some, so if you are a sensitive person you might just want to skip this and wait for my next post, which will come very soon, I promise.

January 28th, 1986. I was 10 years old, fascinated by everything to do with space and rockets and not yet corrupted by teachers and nay-sayers. At the time, many schools dragged out the TVs for every shuttle launch, but not mine.  This was a very special treat – seeing a launch during a school day.  This launch was different in many ways, it captured the imagination of teachers and students everywhere thanks to NASA’s decision to send a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, to space.  Even the kids who didn’t care about it were just excited to get to watch anything on one of our clunky TV setups instead of having normal class, so there was quite a buzz in the air!

At the same time my now-friend David was on a road trip with a friend of his in Florida.  They had heard there would be a launch that morning and decided to go catch this thing in person. They lined up along a road along a river and waited with excitement for the big show.

There had been a lot of launches in the 4 years of the fledgling program already and they’d gone pretty darn well. Americans were getting confident in these vehicles, almost to the point of taking them for granted.  At least, that’s how it felt as a kid who loved the space program!

The first moments of launch are still burned into my brain, the grand plumes spreading out in front of the oh-so-blue sky.  It was not the first launch I saw but it seemed particularly beautiful at first.  Then it all went wrong.

We had no idea what was happening. As soon as she realized we were seeing something tragic, the teacher snapped off the TV and sent us back to our desks. In Florida, David still had no idea what he was seeing. Standing outside the car, he could not hear the radio and everyone around him was in the same position, so he just kept snapping away with an odd feeling this just did not look right.

When the concrete news of Challenger’s dissolution came to us over the school’s PA system we were in shock. Looking around the room I saw that most of the students and our teacher had tears streaming down our faces, even the boys (who in any other situation would have hidden their faces at that age). Those tears are what changed America’s perception and treatment of the space program forever.  Schools stopped showing launches in classrooms, to avoid traumatizing children if there was another disaster. The space shuttle went from capturing our imaginations to something discussed in hushed tones only when absolutely necessary to our education.

I learned something different than most of my peers seemed to that day. That was the day that I realized why the ultimate sacrifice could be absolutely 100% worth it. The day that I realized that the greatest things humans can do often carry the greatest risks.

Here in 2010 we have become the most risk-adverse society I can imagine. Parents are afraid to let their kids play on anything but soft rubber grounds, we have all sorts of laws that treat adults like children, and politicians do their best to make us as afraid as possible of unlikely dangers in order to get our votes. This is a tragedy larger than any event.

I repeat, the greatest things humans can do often carry the greatest risks.

Of course I would prefer that no astronaut ever perish. Of course. They are truly our best and brightest. However, throughout the history of exploration space has actually exacted far less of a toll than most adventures. We strap men and women to rockets that create some of the biggest explosions ever and most of the time they get there and back safely. When you think about it, that is an incredible success! Early explorers, the ones who mapped our planet for the first time, would love to have the success rates of our space program.

On this day, take a moment to remember our fallen heroes. Then, remember that the best way to honor them is to forge ahead in the work they gave their lives for. On this day, when the future of human space flight in America is very much in question and the rumors suggest we may scale back our ambitions. On this day, take a stand and let every single politician who represents you know that we will not let these sacrifices idly fade into a footnote of history but that we MUST continue the journey we started 50 years ago. Please do not let their sacrifices, and ours as a nation, be in vain.

All photographs ©1986 David Ribyat. All rights reserved. Used here with permission.



1. Marko - January 28, 2011

The scariest and most courageous thing the space program could do is sever its umbilical cord to tax dollars. We fear that something not government funded may not happen, but it is not true. Let the people, rich and poor alike, decide for themselves how to spend (or donate) their money, and watch good, worthy projects flourish more than ever, and un-worthy warfare/welfare projects wither away and cease to sap our collective strength. Politicians are good at emotional speeches, but to what end? Let them inspire us to DO good, rather than simply handing them power and money to do good in our name.

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