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A Tragic Day in American History

Rating: 3 votes, 3.67 average.
Posted 01-28-2012 at 01:06 PM by saintfan

It happened 26 years ago on this day. It was January 28th, 1986, and I was in the 11th grade. To many, Shuttle launches were no longer a big deal because, if memory serves, there had been more than 20 that preceded this one, but they still held my imagination. In fact I never lost that feeling - right up and until the program was retired.

Soon after the explosion word made its way around school. I and some others had access to insight other kids didn't. I couldn't wait to get to PASCAL class - my first class after lunch. We didn't learn any PASCAL that day. We talked about all things NASA and all things Space Shuttle.

My instructor - he also taught me Algebra I and II and Physics - worked for NASA before becoming a teacher. We sat and listened to him talk about how they never should have launched. He talked about the pressure NASA was under to launch that day and why. And he was the first person I heard mention what would prove to be the ultimate cause: O Rings. This was long before the media had anything official on the events of that day. NASA was, understandably tight lipped. There was tons of speculation, but it came down to the O Rings smoking almost immediately after liftoff. That is precisely what I was told just a few hours after the disaster. And we later learned that NASA engineers had known about the design flaw for almost a decade and that some strongly advised cancelling the launch that day.

It was odd to me at the time that Mr Perry said nobody would ever be able to convince him to ride one. He talked about how fragile the system was even though they were (and ultimately proved to be) amazingly reliable. Mr Perry never denied that they were well built. He worked for some time on the electrical systems in the cockpit and we sat in awe as we listened to him talk about the various ways systems could fail that could cause disaster. His assertion was that it was such a complex vehicle - that the odds of a critical failure were not exactly remote.

"No, the people who ride it are made differently than most of us", he said, with his whispy laugh. He was a fun guy...extremely intelligent and very entertaining.

So, he was not at all surprised by the disaster, and he said most in NASA likely were not surprised either. That we learned later that the astronauts were likely alive (if not conscious) when they hit the water at over 200 MPH just added more introspection to the tragedy. What must that have been like? If they were alive were they aware of their fate before they met it head on? My God what a truly horrible thing to endure, for more than two minutes.

The Challenger was the most used Shuttle up until this day 26 years ago. The first American Woman in Space rode the Challenger. The first African-American in space and the first Canadian in space also rode the Challenger.

As many of you will recall, this was the flight that included Christa McAuliffe. She was not an astronaut but a school teacher. She won a contest and was to become the first civilian in space. The image of her parents watching the launch and the explosion some 70 seconds later is heart wrenching.

The media went nuts with the story and, while the coverage I remember paid homage to all, the focus was clearly and in some cases solely on Christa. It occurred to me then and still angers me now that the world new her name but no one would ever be able to recall the names of the other 6 members of that crew - those who had far more at stake - those who had devoted their lives to pursue such a dangerous occupation. There names are:

Francis R. Scobee Mission Commander
Michael J. Smith Pilot
Judith A. Resnik Mission Specialist 1
Ellison S. Onizuka Mission Specialist 2
Ronald E. McNair Mission Specialist 3
Gregory B. Jarvis Payload Specialist 1

It has been said that some of their oxygen masks had been activated before impact. It has been observed that there is evidence that Scobee had flipped switches inside the cockpit after the explosion in an effort to restore power. These actions would have taken place during their descent into the Atlantic ocean. Amazingly brave. Brutally tragic.

Please take a moment today to remember these brave people. Please pause, just for a second, and look toward the sky, or bow your head, or please just do something significant and meaningful to you. Just for a brief moment. These men and women embodied that spirit that has driven humanity forward just as the great explores who came before them have done since people walked the earth. We all owe them more than we can repay.

President Regan postponed the State Of The Union speech and instead devoted his time on Television that night to the Challenger. He said:

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.
He didn't write those words, but he delivered them expertly.

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  1. Old Comment
    Halo's Avatar
    It's a sad, sad story and I've also read or heard they were alive for a few minutes before impact, that the explosion itself probably did not kill them.

    I will remember this. I'll never forget where I was that day....
    Posted 01-29-2012 at 03:15 PM by Halo Halo is offline

  2. Old Comment
    I took it for granted that the Space Shuttle would take off and come back because it always had before. Actually didn't hear about the explosion until after, was off somewhere doing 'military' stuff. I remember thinking, "O-rings?". I agree, it takes a special kind of person to go through that training and then strap on a suit to blast off into outer space. Thanks for the remind, saintfan.
    Posted 01-29-2012 at 08:10 PM by SloMotion SloMotion is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Halo's Avatar
    Originally Posted by SloMotion View Comment
    I took it for granted that the Space Shuttle would take off and come back because it always had before.
    I don't think you're alone. I think NASA took it for granted too.
    Posted 01-29-2012 at 11:15 PM by Halo Halo is offline
  4. Old Comment
    saintfan's Avatar
    NASA knew not to launch. That's the saddest thing about it. They had known for almost 10 years and yet they caved in to external pressure.

    I suppose you can say, you know, it's a dangerous occupation. You can say you have to be good with the risk. And as with anything, sometimes you have to break your own rules so as to appease other people...

    Or do you?

    I appreciate everyone's comments. This one will always be near and dear to me.
    Posted 01-30-2012 at 11:04 AM by saintfan saintfan is offline
    Updated 01-30-2012 at 11:31 AM by saintfan
  5. Old Comment
    SapperSaint's Avatar
    I was attending ST Patricks Catholic School when this happened. We had stopped class to watch it because one of our Nun's knew the teacher. Anyway, the explosion is still burned into my memory. Three things I will never forget seeing. The shuttle exploding, the Berlin Wall coming down and seeing the 2nd tower collapes.

    Great blog SF. Thanks for letting us remember, brother.
    Posted 02-01-2012 at 10:54 AM by SapperSaint SapperSaint is offline
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