25 Years After Challenger

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”
John Gillespie Magee, Jr.; spoken by Ronald Reagan after the Challenger tragedy

Twenty-five years ago today, I remember being a student in my second grade classroom. It was a big day, because they were launching the first schoolteacher into space, Christa McAuliffe, along with a crew of NASA astronauts.

Televisions were wheeled into our classrooms so we could watch the launch live on television. While these astronauts weren’t going to the Moon (which was — to my second grade mind — the coolest thing any astronaut could ever do), they were getting to ride into outer space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Watching ascending rocket closely, you could see that something might be wrong. The main tank appeared to catch on fire, and the flames from the rockets beneath seemed to rise up the spacecraft. But nobody was prepared for what happened next.

Although we had no way of knowing at the time, the entire crew of seven — Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Francis Scobee, and Michael Smith — most likely weren’t immediately killed by the explosion, but rather by either depressurization and freezing, or by impact with the sea below.

But like any tragedy, we had to deal with it. How did we do?

Well, we found and fixed the flaws that caused the accident, and returned to space 32 months later with the Space Shuttle Discovery.

But we lost a lot more that day, 25 years ago, than the seven brave women and men aboard the Challenger. As a nation, we lost our eagerness for human space exploration in a way that would have been unfathomable 20 years prior.

Above is a picture of Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, one of the Apollo 1 astronauts killed in a launch pad fire. Perhaps prophetically, he knew that what he was taking part in was a risky endeavor. And he said the following:

“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.” –Gus Grissom

We decided that it was better to devote NASA’s resources towards science goals and away from spaceflight. And the science we’ve gotten from it — from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars rovers, and a plethora of probes, spacecraft, and satellites — has been one of the biggest windfalls of knowledge for all of humanity. And I can’t say anything bad about that decision; I’m thankful for each and every bit of knowledge we got for every one of our dollars. (In fact, it’s a good chunk of what I write about, here!)

But why have so many of us given up our dreams of traveling to, exploring, and eventually living on other worlds, or even other star systems? Perhaps the world is finally ready to take on what — perhaps — no one nation can finance itself: a manned interplanetary journey?

I mean, really, the International Space Station isn’t about doing objectively groundbreaking science. It’s about a human presence in space, and about all our nations’ dreams of taking that next breathtaking step.

Image credit: Cici Koenig.

Maybe it’s time to dream again, and to literally reach for the stars. In addition to (and separate from) NASA’s science budget, how about we start work on human exploration once again? (Hey Barack, seriously, best use of stimulus funds ever!) I know I would love to see it, and I know many of you would, too.

So today, I won’t just be remembering the seven brave souls who tragically lost their lives, I’ll remember the spirit with which they bravely stepped into that shuttle, putting their lives on the line to explore just a little bit farther into the abyss. And I’ll hope that this will prove to be, in fact, just the beginning.