This past Saturday marked the 31st anniversary of the Challenger disaster, and it’s hard to resist the urge to still be depressed about it. 73 seconds after liftoff, the ship exploded, killing the seven astronauts including teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first civilian in space. Later analysis revealed the likely cause to be an O ring failure as a sealant due to unusual freezing temperatures before the launch. I’d like to think that the disaster led to new, safer ways to explore space or a determination to solve scientific problems in ways to benefit us all. But thirty years in, I’ve come to realize some of that is probably fantasy, and the reality is a mix of pessimism and pragmatism.
I remember exactly where I was: at the office on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, only six months into a job with a company I would eventually support for decades. In those “yuppy” days, we still wore suits and heels and spoke in hushed tones, as if every discussion were of utmost importance. In the middle of an intense debate over something on a spreadsheet, we noticed that everyone was suddenly going into the big conference room with the television, and on the screen was this odd blotch of smoke flowering outward. Whoever had been in the room first – to watch the launch initially – had to retell the story over and over as more people came out of their offices and cubicles to join the crowd. All you could see for several minutes was smoke blossoming further and NASA Houston mumbling something about “waiting to see,” until finally the news generated some kind of replay. Then, the announcers explained what had happened, and started replaying it over and over. We’re now used to that instant replay on a loop, but that was the first time I remember seeing it put to use.
There was crying; a lot of us had to sit down. We watched for about fifteen minutes until there was no more to see, no explanations, and no actions we could take.
This wasn’t NASA’s first disaster. Many people are familiar with Apollo 13 (especially after Ron Howard’s excellent film about THAT incident); how the crew and NASA worked together to bring the ship bound for the moon home after a major section exploded in space. Back in 1961, during the water landing of the second Mercury flight, Gus Grissom and crew nearly drowned when the hatch blew early before they could shed their heavy spacesuits. Later in 1967, Grissom did perish with two other astronauts when Apollo I blew up on the launch pad during a testing phase. After each of the incidents, NASA diagnosed the problems and made significant design changes which improved safety and reduced risk.
But between the sinking of the Mercury capsule and Apollo 13, leaders soured on the Kennedy ideal of space flight as a grand venture and became increasingly concerned with expense and negative publicity. The concept of a reusable space shuttle was developed under the Nixon administration in part as an attempt to be more cost-effective. That need to enable landing – like an airplane — created multiple design requirements that limited others. But the original shuttle notion was supposed to integrate with a larger scale Space Transportation System (STS) that supported the creation of an international space station and followed with further exploration of the moon. Most of the funding for those ideas was yanked under Nixon, and only the shuttle program remained to launch a few satellites or very slowly put pieces up for a station. While the shuttle remained a popular concept in our national ethos, the loss of the second shuttle Columbia in another explosion hastened the ending of the shuttle program in 2011.
NASA did use the Challenger disaster to examine their internal culture. Scientists on staff had registered significant objections to the launch after freezing weather in Florida. Tests done on O Rings had shown their vulnerability. However, when those tests were presented to NASA leaders, the communications glossed over or minimized the risks possibly because of the pressure exacted on middle management to demonstrate cost effectiveness. Scrubbing a launch would waste money. How exactly do you quantify the risk and the cost-benefit trade-off for a tiny vulnerable O-ring?
One of my other heroes, Edward Tufte, (see blog 2/29/2016 ) analyzed the presentation of data for NASA. He showed that using approaches and tools – like Powerpoint– worked to make communication of risks harder He’s now made a living explaining better ways to present information that is both concise and complete. NASA has changed its approach to reviewing engineering safety results, whistle-blowing, and the way group decisions are made.
I’m a child of the Kennedy decade – I believe as JFK said that we should still go to space and to the moon and to Mars “because it’s hard” and “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies.” As emotionally painful as the disaster was, I wanted to believe that NASA would figure it all out, fix it, and go back twice as hard. As human beings, that’s what we do. I even wrote some fanfiction using the disaster as a premise. This was before the Star Trek movie First Contact; my idea also involved time travel and changing the historical timeline. Some bad Klingons figure out how to prevent the disaster from happening, and history was changed so that Klingons were able to control space rather than the Federation. Kirk and Spock have to thwart them and let the explosion take place. In my head, if the disaster hadn’t happened, the space shuttle program would have been limited to launching satellites and publicity flights instead of forcing a new vision of the rocket design that launched us to Mars and beyond. Which we somehow should have done by now.
Instead, in the decades since my fantasy and the disaster happened, the United States has taken a back seat to other countries and to corporations, and we have not fulfilled JFK’s vision for the U.S. to occupy “a position of pre-eminence.” The space program has stalled with even more focus on cost cutting. Any federal spending for visionary ideas – on space, the arts, the national parks, or education – becomes subject to overbearing scrutiny and contempt. We seem to retreat further every year from the idea of America as the shining place of wonders created by its citizens for the enjoyment of all. Instead, we’ve abandoned the collective support for vision and left them to companies or private foundations.
Maybe that’s where there’s some hope after all. In this wake left from the slowdown of federal investment, entrepreneurs have stepped in. While early notions of space tourism by Richard Branson and the Russian Mircorp seemed farfetched, that may end up the best way to funnel money to achieve the infrastructure needed. On the one hand, it seems unfair that only billionaires would be able to afford to go into space as tourists, but that also address the disaster issue. It’s still dangerous to launch, but now the risk is individual rather than national. American pride is not at stake if a billionaire’s rocket fails. (I can’t think of a way to write that sentence without it seeming callous, but I’m sorry, I don’t cry for billionaires.)
I didn’t even know until I just researched it that nearly a dozen people have already gone up as space tourists, most taken in Russian rockets. Or that, for instance, New Mexico passed an act in 2010 giving legal protection to companies who provide those flights so that passengers have to sign an informed consent waiver. In case of, you know, a failed O ring. Wait until the lawsuits start coming.
But that would be a good thing. That would make it part of our daily life. Just as it’s becoming more and more conventional that Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corporation can launch rockets. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is also actively working ways to get humans into space. Since our country can’t seem to manage it, it appears to be left up to the monopolists and visionaries in the technology world. True to Bezos’ vision, his Blue Origin company even has its own coat of arms. While I’m not a fan of Amazon’s nasty trade practices, I like the idea of “Gradatim Ferociter” — step by step, ferociously.
We have to keep going into space. Whether “we” is America, Elon Musk, the international community, scientists, or @RogueNASA, we have to keep going into space. Marco Polo wasn’t the first guy to set out for new markets and new ventures over the Asian deserts and he wasn’t bankrolled by a huge central government. Columbus was bankrolled by a government – but not his own – and the information he brought back benefited the European world.
So, if we can’t follow the idealistic vision of a president to “explore new worlds and new civilizations” – and that seems ever less likely now – we can follow the idealistic visions of the braintrust of America. It wasn’t NASA entirely that developed the communicator technology that we hold in our hand or the access to instantaneous information or the ability to tell everyone we know about it. That was Apple, Google, Wikipedia, Twitter and Facebook. I know that, collectively, those inventors and idealists don’t shrink from tasks because they are “hard” or just to save money.
Perhaps I wasn’t wrong after all. The Challenger disaster heralded an era where technology flourished in thousands of ways. Our government could provide intellectual leadership and the way forward, but if it won’t, it doesn’t have a sacred right to or ownership of all great ideas. We as a people can still go. And we will. Gradatim Ferociter.