Thursday, January 28, 2016

Challenger - With Great Tragedy, Comes Great Triumph

by Cian O'Regan

On the thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger disaster which occurred on this day, January 28 1986, we pause to remember the seven person crew of space shuttle mission STS-51L, who died in the name of exploration.

On this day we remember astronauts Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Christa McAuliffe, Ron McNair and Greg Jarvis.
The crew of space shuttle mission STS-51L from Left-Right:
Back Row: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik
Front Row: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair
credit: NASA

I was not born until ten years after Challenger exploded, so unfortunately I did not experience what it was like to marvel at those early shuttle flights or become familiar with those who made each mission possible. 

Fortunately, I did not have to share in their grief.

Space shuttle mission STS-51L lifted off from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center at 11:38 a.m. Eastern Time on January 28. It was a bitterly cold winter's morning in Florida that day with temperatures falling as low as 26 °F (−3 °C) - well below the qualification limit of the shuttle's twin Solid Rocket Boosters(SRBs).

Combined with strong winds, conditions for launch were far from ideal.

Just one minute and thirteen seconds after lift-off, Challenger suffered a catastrophic structural failure resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its crew. The Rogers Commission later determined the failure of primary and backup O ring seals in the right SRB to be the cause of the accident.

Whether you were around at the time or not, we all know the fate of Challenger. People remember it in much the same way that they remember the Kennedy assassination and other moments in history. They remember where they were when they heard the news, who they spoke to, how they felt. My father for example often reminds me of where he was that day three decades ago- working as a doorman at a hotel in New York City. He had the heavy duty of informing some people of what had happened earlier that day down at the space coast.

Although most people not only in the United States but around the world never saw let alone met President Kennedy, somehow they still felt as if they knew the man personally - weeping at the news of his death as if he were a member of the family. The same is true for the crew of Challenger.

I feel that as a space enthusiast and as a person whose heroes are those who fly into the cosmos aboard spaceships like Challenger, I figured I owe the crew and their families a simple prayer of remembrance and this piece to show that their efforts were far from vain.

I know that no words of mine can come close to trying to sum up what happened on this day thirty years ago. However, earlier this week I came across a speech made by John Glenn to the team of launch controllers on duty that day, just six hours after lift-off. I think it sums things up pretty well.

"Most of you have been tied up here today, you've been tied up on the boards here at the positions here. You haven't seen probably much of what's been going on on TV across the country today, but it's been a national day of tragedy, I can guarantee you that."

"All America is sharing in the tragedy that you have lived through here today. We've had tremendous triumphs. We've head triumph after triumph after triumph and that's how mankind goes ahead.. We try! We try! We try! In this program we've succeeded."

The final launch of Challenger on January 28 1986. The shuttle
and its crew would be lost just 73 seconds after launch.
credit: National Geographic
"Really, if we're honest about it, and honest with ourselves, beyond our wildest dreams, I would have never thought we would ever go this far without losing some people in something where you're up there travelling around at 5 miles a second, the heat of re-entry and all the complexities and the things that have to work right.. We come to a time when something happens, and we have a tragedy that goes along with our triumphs. And I guess that's the story of all mankind."

It would have been much easier to cancel the shuttle program after Challenger was lost rather than pick up the pieces and press on with space shuttle missions. It would also ensure an accident like this never happened again aboard a shuttle. Sadly, NASA would lose another shuttle when Columbia burned up upon re-entry during STS-107 in February 2003.

But if you ask any astronaut about whether they think the risks associated with sending humans into space are worth it, you will be met with a response similar to that given by Gus Grissom, Mercury astronaut, who was to die in the Apollo 1 fire;

"If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."

Three decades on from Challenger, we no longer see the shuttle blazing a trail in the skies above us. Nowadays instead of clear skies, you now require a museum admission ticket to admire the surviving shuttles; Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour.

But all is not lost! We have learned from our mistakes and now live in an age where there has been a continuous human presence in space for over fifteen years and counting aboard the football pitch-sized International Space Station. I can only imagine that this idea would have been unfathomable as the month of January drew to a close in 1986. However, when humans suffer setbacks, we come back even stronger, more curious, and more determined. Who knows what the next thirty years in space may bring?

January 28 marks NASA's Day of Remembrance where the agency remembers all of its fallen astronauts. Let us not only remember Challenger as well as the crew of Apollo 1 and Columbia(whose anniversaries also occur at this time), but all those from around the world who have given their lives in the name of space exploration.

Res Gesta Per Excellentiam.

Ad Astra!

A big thanks to Andy McCrea, Hart Sastrowardoyo, Al Hallonquist and Ian Whalley for their contributions and help to this article. Also be sure to check out my friend Tim Gagnon's website. Tim is just after designing a wonderful patch to remember all of those who died in man's conquest of space.