SHUTTLE TRAGEDY 25 YEARS LATER
Challenger explosion remains defining moment for many Americans
On the morning the Challenger space shuttle made its final flight, Mark Letalien was sitting in his high school theatre surrounded by wildly cheering students as the spacecraft carrying their teacher, Christa McAuliffe, tore through the Florida sky.
But 73 seconds into the historic mission, the raucous celebration at Concord High School in Concord, N.H., was shattered by a teacher’s yell to be quiet.
“The room froze,” said Letalien. “It was stunned silence. It was such a burst bubble.”
Television cameras in the theatre, trained on the school to capture the excitement, now showed the devastated looks on the faces of teachers and students as the realization of what had happened began to sink in.
It was 25 years ago today that the shuttle disintegrated in a massive fireball, imprinting an unforgettable image into the minds of everyone who witnessed the tragedy.
“I feel that was a defining moment in a lot of kids’ lives,” said Letalien, now a 41-year-old father living in Georgia. “It was our Kennedy assassination.”
The dramatic footage from Jan. 28, 1986, of the shuttle exploding, then showering into the sea in pieces, played on a seemingly endless loop on news networks everywhere.
The loss of the seven astronauts, especially McAuliffe, left an indelible mark on the psyche of the U.S. public, as the tragedy became a shared trauma not matched until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The accident also claimed the lives of Cmdr. Francis (Dick) Scobee, 46, pilot Michael Smith, 40, mission specialists Ellison Onizuka, 39, Judith Resnik, 36, and Ronald McNair, 35, and payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, 41.
Liberal MP Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut in space, said the disaster opened the eyes of a public that had begun to see shuttle launches as routine.
“I think people had an undefined idea that there could be danger,” he said. “But by then, space travel didn’t have the allure that it had before. People weren’t watching all the launches.”
The difference with the Challenger mission, the 25th shuttle launch since the first in 1981, was the presence of McAuliffe. A social studies teacher from Concord, she had won a nationwide contest to become the first teacher in space.
The 37-year-old beat out more than 100 hopefuls from across the United States and helped to reinvigorate the space program. McAuliffe had said she was ready for what she described as “the ultimate field trip.”
“She, being a teacher, generated a lot of publicity,” said Garneau. “She had really captured the hearts of Americans.”
On the day of the launch, Garneau was at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, when he paused midway through a meeting to watch the event along with the rest of the world. Garneau lived on Challenger for eight days during his first mission to space in 1984 and he was watching the launch with the same interest as everyone else. As the shuttle broke apart, he stared incredulously at the TV screen, his thoughts turning to his training.
“Those of us who were astronauts, we understood what was supposed to happen,” said Garneau. “But this was the first time something unusual had happened, and nobody knew what to think.”
While there were some gasps, there was mostly shocked silence, as everyone remained focused on the televisions and looked for that glimmer of hope, he said.
“I was thinking about what was going on inside the capsule,” Garneau said. “I knew that it had not been instantaneous. And even though I knew better, I was looking for a sign that they might have gotten out of the vehicle before impact.”
For Garneau, who knew many of the crew, including McAuliffe, the accident was “wrenching.” As the public mourned, Garneau said the accident shattered the mythology, cultivated since NASA put a man on the moon, that the space agency would always accomplish the impossible.
NASA was further put to the test when the subsequent investigation into the accident found that managers not only knew about the faulty O-rings on the two solid-fuel rocket boosters that caused the disaster, but that they had ignored warnings about their failure before the launch.
Letalien, a self-described cynical teenager, said the fact the accident could have been prevented only solidified his belief at the time that NASA had used McAuliffe as a “sacrificial lamb of the buildup.”
At the time, he accused the space agency of being too focused on pulling off a successful public relations event in front of the television cameras.
One of the most enduring images of the disaster were the pained expressions of McAuliffe’s parents, captured on tape by television crews, as they witnessed the death of their daughter.
Letalien appeared on several national newscasts in 1986, including CNN’s Larry King Live, to say what he thought of NASA. Twenty-five years later, he said he wishes he could take some of it back.
“I regret having said those things back then,” he said. “I wasn’t smart enough to understand the magnitude.”
But Garneau said Letalien’s feelings at the time were in line with how much of the public felt about the space program after the Challenger disaster. Garneau said NASA took note, and there was an “attitudinal change” within the agency.
“There was quite an overhaul with NASA,” he said. “Each mission was now viewed as, potentially, a disaster.”
The space agency even changed its policy on how astronauts’ families watched launches. They would no lon- ger be in the public eye when a shuttle took off, for fear of capturing on film their anguish, should something again go wrong, Garneau said.
Bob Thirsk, a current astronaut and the Canadian with the most hours logged in space, said that while the accident was “shattering,” some good came out of the disaster.
“We’ve learned lessons that can be passed along,” he said. “Do good work, pay attention, be thorough.”
While Thirsk admits the death of seven astronauts when the shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry in 2003 proves the system isn’t perfect, he said exploration demands that humans take risks.
“When I got into the shuttle on my first flight, I had no tragedy to cloud my thinking,” said Garneau. “But in the end, the opportunity and the allure is so great, it was a risk I was prepared to accept.”
Despite tragedies such as the Challenger, Garneau and Thirsk said space exploration must continue to “fulfil the human experience.”