Today marks the 25th anniversary of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle mission. I remember watching the Enterprise take its test flight off the back of a modified 747 nine years earlier while visiting my aunt in Kitimat, an event momentous enough to merit interrupting normal broadcast service to carry live coverage of it. By 1986, the two dozen previous shuttle launches meant they were barely news any more, and certainly not an event, until the explosion occurred, killing everyone on board.
Christa McAuliffe was a schoolteacher from New Hampshire who was one of 11,000 applicants who vied to become the first teacher in space. The fact that the first civilian in space was to be a woman as well as an educator painted a vivid picture of the peaceful, inclusive and knowledge-driven future that those of us who grew up watching Star Trek on television yearned for.
Even in death, her dream of being the first teacher in space was never realized; the shuttle exploded less than two minutes after launch, at a height of 48,000 feet. To this day, the footage of the children in her classroom watching as tragedy unfolded before their eyes, their proud, gleeful shrieks replaced first by stunned silence, and then sobbing, is still my benchmark for heartbreak. Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe's backup, became the first teacher in space, but not until 21 years had passed.
After the explosion, the shuttle program was grounded for almost three years while a commission discovered that an O-ring made by Morton Thiokol was the most likely cause of the explosion. In 2003, the shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry, again killing everyone on board and although many initially speculated on terrorists being responsible, it appears a damaged hull tile was probably the real reason.
These two accidents have had a profound effect on the American space program; NASA's glory days are long past, and they have to fight for every funding dollar they receive. They have made admirable efforts to engage public interest by sharing feeds for the Mars Rover directly to the internet and the like, but there are probably more people concerned about Jersey Shore going to Italy than NASA trying to get to Mars.
Some of their efforts seem to smack of desperation, like the recent press conference called to announce a stunning discovery in the field of exo-biology, which turned out to be not nearly as dramatic as anticipated, but has also had its scientific credibility called into question. I've never believed in the axiom 'there is no such thing as bad publicity', and I hope NASA doesn't either, but as an ever more introverted and cocooning society turns more and more inward in its interests, it may become hard to argue against them.
On the other hand, the super-rich are still funding the Russian space program in exchange for rocket rides, and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic stands to be an early leader in space tourism at $200,000 a ticket, and hopes to begin their sub-orbital flights in the next year or two. Meanwhile, Chinese taikonauts are being lauded as heroic explorers like American astronauts once were, before we apparently forgot that space is intrinsically dangerous.
There was a time when the deep ocean was a dangerous unknown, and before that, the sea with a barely visible shore, and prior to that, the land across the mountains, and before that, the area outside our cave. I hope humans never lose their desire to explore these unknowns, and that more of us return to space, and soon. And not just billionaires and those who do it for national pride, but engineers and chemists and teachers, and eventually accountants and miners and cooks. I hope they go to see just what is out there, and to serve a need or to find something useful, or to help support those who are going further and further out.
25 years after STS-51-L, let us not focus on the tears, loss and horror of its aftermath, but on what drove brave individuals like Christa McAuliffe to go into space in the first place. Let's continue to look outward, and see what's out there, and continue to go, boldly, where no one has gone before.