I remember every detail with astonishing clarity. A long hallway with brown carpeted floors. The elementary school library on the right hand side at the far end. To the left, stairs led up and around to the right, where the entrance to the high school was. As a third grader, I wasn’t allowed to wander the halls without my class, but my teacher made sure an exception was made for me. In the corner of the library, between the stacks, was the librarian’s desk, which had the only TV in the school – small, maybe 12 inches, and black and white. About a half dozen people were watching as the countdown began. We stood in front of her desk and hung on every word of the announcer as the countdown continued….5…4…3…2…1…liftoff!
I had never seen a launch before. Indeed, this was the only the 8th shuttle launch, but every kid in the country knew it was carrying the first teacher into space. I had a deep interest in science and was incredibly excited. I had drawn pictures of the space shuttle before and studied the diagrams in Popular Science until I knew who made a lot of the major sub-assemblies. Of course, I had no idea they were called that. I knew nothing about how rockets worked or the physics of spaceflight. It’s odd – these are subjects that come to mind as naturally as breathing now, but as a short, skinny 3rd-grader, I had no idea what the future would hold for me.
Challenger headed up with the announcer saying something I didn’t really pay attention to – I was awestruck by what I was seeing. This long slender rocket with the orbiter on its back was riding a ball of fire into the sky, leaving the rest of us behind. As I stared up at the screen, something happened which I couldn’t quite understand. The picture seemed to have changed. The tone in the room was different. The librarian reached up and shut off the TV and told us all to go back to our classrooms. I could tell she was crying and that was when I first realized that something had gone terribly wrong and that something had happened to the space shuttle. Something terrible.
Since then, I’ve studied the Challenger disaster in some detail – I can draw schematics of the solid rocket booster and O-rings from memory. Pause the video at 0:26 and you can actually see the black smoke on the SRB that ultimately perforated the fuel tank and caused it to break up during ascent. The Rogers Commission report on the accident was required reading for my error analysis class, and like every other card-carrying physicist, I’ve read Feynman’s appendix to that report enough times to probably have it memorized. I’ve seen the bureaucracy of NASA that led to that fateful launch and the deaths of all those astronauts. It’s been easy over the past couple of years to starting thinking of the accident as some sort of abstract problem, as an example of bureaucratic nonsense which led to a horrific tragedy – I think about it a lot, since I work on related programs. I’ve even used it as a talking point during presentations to point out flawed reasoning that NASA had tried in the past but failed – that tends to not go over too well.
Sometimes I forget that there were real people on-board that day. A physicist, a few engineers, the requisite Air Force characters, and, of course, a social studies teacher. At the time, NASA management claimed that the failure rate of the space shuttle was something like 1 in 100,000, which implied that one could launch a shuttle every day for 300 years before anticipating a failure – fools. NASA engineering put the number closer to 1 in 100, a figure which was never passed on to the men and women that died that day. Would Christa McAuliffe, a civilian, have flown on the shuttle had she known the actual failure rate was 100 times higher than the official NASA figure? I don’t know – probably. She seems to have been, by all accounts, an idealist that had real faith in the mission. But I think she should have been able to make the decision for herself with the full knowledge of what she was getting into. After all, she had a family. The Air Force and NASA personnel probably understood the risks better than she did and it was their job – McAuliffe was just along for the ride.