Today is the twentieth anniversary of the Challenger disaster, January 28, 1986. I still have that morning indelibly etched in my mind.
Helaine and I were living in Branford. Steffie wasn’t quite a twinkle in our eye. We went to sleep late and woke up later.
From bed, we turned on CNN. I’m not sure we had any anticipation of seeing a space shot that morning, but as the set came to life, the countdown was in its final two minutes. There was no way we were going to turn away.
We watched what happened live. James Oberg writing on MSNBC today said that was the exception not the rule. I knew something was wrong right away. No one had to tell me.
Twenty years ago, the bloom was already off NASA’s rose. Few people cared the shuttle was being launched. From time-to-time on previous launches, I’d run a few seconds of tape. But really, there’s was little news value. I was indulged because it fit so well with my TV personna.
On January 28, 1986 only CNN had a live reporter at the Cape¹.
Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire school teacher was onboard to help NASA drum up some good publicity – the mother’s milk of funding. It doesn’t seem fair, considering the risk she faced.
Should NASA have known the shuttle was in danger that cold January morning? Was there a push to launch no matter what the circumstances? Truth is, it makes no difference.
Even if this explosion hadn’t happened then, there were other dangers hidden. Everything that brought Columbia down was already in place long before Challenger. There are other hidden perils we’ll see when the shuttle flies again… if it ever does.
Challenger came before my stint as host of Inside Space. I knew a little, not a lot about the space program when I started. The more I hung out where ‘spacemen’ hung out, the more I learned. This was my first step in deciding manned spaceflight was, and is, a hugely dangerous waste of money, resources and time.
Climbing onto a missile and having someone light the fuse is in and of itself dangerous. I have commented to astronauts on more than one occasion, it’s a job that can kill you when you’re just practicing. That’s what happened with Apollo One.
Today, everything that can be done on the shuttle can better be done robotically. There’s really no need to put people at danger. Anyway, even when the shuttle was flying, there wasn’t much science being performed.
NASA would like you to think otherwise, but what I’m saying is so. Look back at what was aboard Columbia – it’s embarrassing. I’ve heard talk of metallurgy and pharmaceuticals in space for decades – but it’s never happened in a way that would lead to the promised commercial applications.
Don’t get me wrong, the astronauts and NASA’s scientists are dedicated people. It didn’t take long to figure that out. I have met more brilliant minds at NASA facilities than anywhere else I’ve ever been. They are not the problem.
Flying people into space is a macho thing. It somehow seems more significant and worthy if a person is at the controls and not a machine. Until that mindset changes we will accomplish little and endanger many.
¹ – I’m not sure who it was, though probably the late John Holliman, a very nice guy and space enthusiast.