Hard to believe, I know, but twenty five years ago today the space shuttle Challenger was lost, with all her crew. Twenty five years… that’s a quarter of a century… Unbelievable…
I’m sure many of you reading this will remember that awful, awful day. It was the Space Enthusiast community’s “Kennedy Moment”, we all remember where we were, and what we were doing, when we heard the news that Challenger had blown up just over a miute after launch. Myself, I was sat in front of the TV, waiting to watch coverage of the launch on a well-known BBC children’s news programme, “John Craven’s Newsround.” Why was I watching a kids TV news show when I was 21 at the time ( and had celebrated ny 21st birthday just four days previously, in fact)? Well, in those days there were no rolling 24 hour news channels, no Sky TV or Freeview, so if you wanted to “catch up” on the news you had to wait for the 6pm news on the TV , turn on the radio on the hour, or tune into “Newsround” if it was teatime. That was what I was doing as Challenger blew up – sitting on the carpet, right in front of the TV, waiting for Newsround to start.
Even then I was doing “Outreach”, giving lots of talks and lectures, and running my town’s astronomical society, so the presence of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, on the mission had made it especially interesting and important to me. I’d followed it very closely, and was desperately, DESPERATELY looking forward to watching Christa’s lessons from orbit, maybe using parts of them in my own work in schools, and had a brand new 180 minute video tape loaded in the VCR ready to record every bit of TV coverage the mission received. And I expected that to be a lot.
… so quite happily I turned the TV over from whatever it was that I was watching, hit the “record” button on the VCR, and froze as I came face to face with a classic “We’re getting reports…” moment.
Moments later I was in tears, sat there on that floor. Challenger – for some reason “my” shuttle, the one I’d adopted out of the fleet – was gone, its crew was gone, Christa was gone. The space program was over, clearly, at least for a while. And although the talking heads on the TV were chattering about “rescue helicopters being despatched to look for survivors” I knew, in my gut, even without knowing the hard scientific facts about impact velocities and decelaration forces etc, that there was no chance of anyone surviving the disaster.
It was awful, just awful, and for the next few days, as the TV news showed the launch and subsequent explosion over and over and over, and every newspaper filled its pages with pictures of the crew, their families and the disaster, I was desperately sad. People not interested in space exploration told me I was being melodramatic, huffed that more people died in road crashes every day, sneered that I didn’t know anyone onboard so why should it matter to me? But they didn’t see, and couldn’t know, that somewhere inside me a dream I had cherished since I was a very young child had died, and I knew that the golden, shining future I had imagined growing up was now not going to happen. At least, not on time. Not IN time, for me. That was, in hindsight, the day I stopped believing that ‘normal’ people, like me, would be travelling into space anytime soon.
I knew that the loss of Challenger would shift a lot of dates backwards. There’d be a delay in building the space station… in sending people back to the Moon… in landing people on my beloved Mars… It was a dark time indeed.
Inevitably, reporters started digging and as people started talking fingers started pointing, and eventually the truth of ignored warnings and behind the scenes pressure came out – and yes, if I’m honest, I hated then, with a fiery, burning passion, the people who had allowed the tragedy to happen by approving the launch despite warnings about low temperatures and the risk of tehnical failures. Those people, I thought, in my young, black-and-white mind, had murdered those astronauts through their arrogance and incompetence.
Twenty five years later and as a 46 year old (oh my god, how did THAT happen?!?!?!?!) I can, like everyone else, look back on “The Challenger Tragedy” with different, wiser eyes. I know now about the incredible pressures there were on those people to get Challenger off the pad. I know now that the behind the scenes politics were incredibly complex and difficult. I know now that space exploration is just hard, and dangerous, and accidents happen. So, while I’m still angry – bloody angry, in fact, because the bottom line is that Challenger just shouldn’t have flown that day, and there were people in the decision-making loop who could, and should, have stopped it – I can look back on the tragedy on this anniversary with a lot more understanding and sympathy than I felt at the time.
What makes me sad most now, is wondering… wondering what kind of a future we lost when Challenger blew up… wondering how things would have been different if Challenger’s launch had been scrubbed that day and she’d blasted off safely on another day, a warmer day.
It nags at me now, like a throbbing toothache, wondering how many children would have been inspired to go on to study astronomy and become scientists or even astronauts, had Christa talked to them, and the world, from an orbiting Challenger. If things had been different we would have turned on our TVs and see Christa floating in the mid-deck, with her mane of red hair forming a cloud around her face, beaming that beautiful, beaming smile as she told her audience, young and old, what life in space was like, how gorgeous the Earth looked, how it was science, and hard work, that had got her there, and how any child watching could follow her into space and follow their dreams if they worked hard enough…
There are people in the world today, working away quite happily – or very unhappily – in banks and shops who would have become astrophysicists, doctors or astronauts if Christa had talked to them when they were children, from orbit, I’m absolutely sure. Just as I’m absolutely sure that the lessons beamed to Earth from Christa’s orbiting classroom would have been so inspiring, so exciting that they might have led to a surge in public interest in, and support for, manned space exploration, which might well have brought forward the dates of manned missions to the Moon and Mars too. And that is so, so sad.
In my mind’s eye I can see Challenger landing safely at the end of Mission 51-L… I see Christa and the rest of the crew stepping down the stairs, beaming brightly and waving at the cameras and crowds… I see Christa doing TV talk shows, and touring the world, speaking up for NASA and space exploration with the passion, eloquence and sincerity she was famous for… I see people sensing, perhaps for the first time, a true connection between themselves and “out there”, and support for NASA surging like a tsunami…
If I had a time machine I’d go back to that freezing Florida morning, push my way into that meeting and shout and kick and scream, and punch and bite anyone who got in my way until I made them stop the launch –
But we are where we are, the past can’t be rewritten. And “What Ifs” won’t change anything.
I’m still angry, furious about the loss of Challenger, and those feelings all came tumbling and rushing out in “No Fear of Ice“, a poem I wrote commemorating the anniversary, but I also know that the 25th anniversary of the disaster isn’t a time to be angry, it’s a time to honour the crew of Challenger, pay tribute to their sacrifice, and celebrate the amazing achievements of the US space program, manned and unmanned. In the past quarter of a century, NASA has done amazing things, incredible things, inspiring things, all of which, in some way, honour the crew of Challenger – and of Apollo 1 and Columbia, too.
Right now, as you read this, the Mars exploration rover “Opportunity” is standing on the edge of a crater known as “Santa Maria”. Famously meant to last 90 days, it is still working, still roving, still doing science, seven years after landing on Mars. Much further north, in the much smaller “Eagle Crater”, the rover’s landing stage still stands…
…but it isn’t known as that; soon after Oppy’s arrival on Mars it was christened “The Challenger Memorial Station”, so the spirit of the Challenger crew, and their mission, will always be remembered and celebrated on Mars, as long as people visit the crater, see the landing stage and reverently whisper the name “Challenger”.
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