How the Challenger Disaster Changed My Life

The space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986—twenty-five years ago today. The disaster took the lives of six astronauts and one schoolteacher, and shook NASA to its core. Like other televised national traumas, it burned itself into the memories of millions of people. I was just a spectator to the catastrophe, watching speechless and horrified along with everyone else as the video clips were played and replayed on television. But that day altered the direction of my life in unusually concrete ways, and I can’t let the anniversary pass without a bit of reflection.

In January 1986 I was a 19-year-old freshman at Harvard College. On the morning of January 28, I was working on an assignment in the computer room at the university’s science center, and a student who had just taken a seat at the terminal next to mine mentioned the accident. I didn’t believe him at first. But he seemed serious enough about the story to make me nervous.

This was years before the advent of the Web—I couldn’t simply log on and check the news. So I got up and literally ran back to my dorm room, where my roommates and I had a small color TV. I remember thinking, as I charged through Harvard Yard, that the story couldn’t possibly be true. Hadn’t the shuttle traveled safely into space dozens of times before? Didn’t the engineers at NASA know how to prevent such a disaster? But sure enough, when I turned on the TV, there were the images of the spaceship disintegrating against an azure sky, sending tendrils of smoke and flames in all directions.

Like many people that day, I spent hours watching the coverage unfold, culminating with President Reagan’s eloquent televised address. The horror of the event was immediate for me. It was awful to imagine what the seven crew members must have experienced as the shuttle broke up, and to realize what a huge setback the accident represented for the U.S. space program, which I had followed with zeal since I was old enough to watch TV.

But the disaster’s real influence settled in only over the next several months, as investigators such as physicist Richard Feynman worked out the chain of events that had led to the explosion. As it turned out, a rubber O-ring in one of the solid rocket boosters, stiffened by that morning’s cold weather, had failed, allowing flames to burst through, in turn causing the shuttle’s main fuel tank to explode. It was such a predictable and seemingly preventable problem that for the first time in my life I began to question NASA’s competence, and to understand just how important the human element in any large technological system can be. On a broader level, I began to look at all technological and scientific endeavors with a much more skeptical—-one might even say disillusioned—eye.

I had a work-study job that year doing data analysis for an X-ray astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Within weeks after the accident it was clear that the massive satellite that this astronomer had been helping to design, which had been scheduled to go into space aboard a shuttle, would be delayed for years while NASA retrenched. This was a big professional blow for him, and for many other scientists whose instruments could only get into space aboard the shuttle; it affected the whole mood at the center over the following months. This, in turn, contributed to my own growing disenchantment with the job and with my long-cherished idea of becoming an astronomer or astrophysicist. (I hasten to add that I wasn’t very good at math, which would have derailed my plans eventually anyway.)

By the end of my sophomore year, less than a year and a half after the Challenger disaster, I had decided to switch majors from physics and astronomy to the history of science. In this discipline, my professors encouraged me to think skeptically about ideas that I had previously accepted uncritically, such as “American know-how” and the inevitability of technological progress. Eventually I went on to graduate studies in the history of technology at MIT and wrote a doctoral thesis about the social and political effects of technological disasters. That, in turn, helped launch me on a career in science and technology journalism. (Though there were also plenty of other influences—such as my unexpected detour into campus journalism at the Harvard Independent, and a chance encounter with Carl Sagan. But that’s another story.)

For me, the Challenger disaster hit at the moment when I was perhaps most impressionable—when I was in the middle of defining my world-view and choosing my future. It taught me that the world was full of risks I hadn’t contemplated; that America was not invulnerable; that extravagant endeavours can go extravagantly wrong. These are all lessons that people slightly older than myself probably learned from Vietnam, Apollo 13, and Watergate—and we certainly relearned them as a nation when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11 and the shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003. But for me, Challenger was the veil-lifting moment. And it’s all still symbolized in my mind by the iconic TV images of the exploding spacecraft, its twin boosters veering across the sky like ghostly fireworks.

This article is adapted from an essay I originally wrote for the book A Creative Guide to Exploring Your Life by Graham Gordon Ramsay and Holly Barlow Sweet (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009). Republished by permission.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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