Friday, January 28, 2011

The Challenger

Space Shuttle Challenger ' s smoke plume after...Image via Wikipedia
It's hard to believe that it has been 25 years since the Challenger disaster. As I sit in my office, surrounded by colleagues who aren't old enough to have witnessed, or remember witnessing, this disaster, I feel old.

I watched the live coverage. I grew up in Houston, home of NASA. One of my high school classmates was the niece of an astronaut. Space exploration was a very real thing to me. One of my earliest memories is seeing the moon landing. I've written about that before.

I was beginning my own studies towards teacher certification when Christa McAuliffe earned the right to be the first teacher in space. It spoke volumes to me that the first average citizen that NASA chose to send into space was going to be a teacher. Who better to inspire the youth of our nation? Who better to explain space travel to the average joe than a teacher?

When the shuttle's O-rings disintegrated and that great cloud of gas blossomed, I knew something was terribly wrong. As the days and weeks and months progressed after the death of the Challenger, we learned that what caused the mistake was just plain stupid. Looking back on what lead up to the decision to launch in sub-freezing temperatures, one thing comes to mind - science should never take a back seat to public relations.

The risk was underplayed. Politicians, latching on to the imprecise nature of predicting systems failure, chose to interpret the numbers as they felt best fit their political agenda. Sound familiar? Science is rarely capable of providing us with a single, clear answer. The more variables in the equation, the more likely the answer is to be muddy. Can't prove 100% that there's a problem with the O-rings? Then we'll take the best case scenario that's been given us by managers more interested in keeping the money flowing and ignore the engineers.

More than the sad reality that politics played in this and other scientific enquiries, I look at our space program now and wonder - what the hell happened?  The surviving shuttles are scheduled to retire this year. What will replace them? We have no replacements. Those plans have been scrapped. Future Americans scheduled to work on the International Space Station will reach orbit in the vehicles of other countries, most notably the Russians.

President Obama spoke of a Sputnik moment in his State of the Union address. But he wasn't addressing space exploration. That dream, that most American of endeavors,  has died. Strangled in its crib by the idiocy of those who can't understand science, by those who wish to force science to fit their political agenda.

Humanity may conquer space. We may build on the moon and reach the stars some day, but that exploration and advance will not be lead by American ingenuity. The minds that managed to save the Apollo 11 crew with leftover parts and slide rules have been replaced by managers and politicians more interested in show than results.

We must find a way to escape this mud-ball we call Earth if we are to grow and survive as a species. I have always believed this. To do so, we must look to the future.

Something that I fear as Americans, we have forgotten how to do.


Nance said...

You could show me that particular squiggle, that series of loops and streamers, and I would know it in any context as the shape that makes something inside sink.

Since our first Sputnik moment, we've learned so much about the distances and obstacles we'd have to overcome to make life work elsewhere, we've been daunted by not only the money men, but the very science, itself.

I think we had had some notion of avoiding the ugliness of a future of straightened circumstances and diminishing choices, but that future caught up with us before we'd escape Earth's orbit.

LeftLeaningLady said...

My husband was in line for lunch on his Navy ship when the explosion was announced. Before he had finished eating the ship had turned south, toward the spot where the Challenger was last seen. He was 21 years old. The stories he tells will curl your hair, about the wreckage, about the water, about how wrong the media got every.little.thing.