Seven Astronauts and a Lesson in Fragility

Social media reminds me that today is the 35th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

I remember pretty clearly. I was in 9th grade, 5th period Earth & Space Science class. It seems odd that we weren’t watching the launch as it happened, but that may just be an indicator of how passé shuttle missions had become by 1986. In fourth and fifth grade, every launch was appointment viewing, regardless of what class you were in. But the novelty had worn off by 1986. Not only were we not watching, we were scarcely aware of it. No one suggested to Mr. Conrad that we should watch it in lieu of whatever the day’s lesson was.

That changed when Mr. Gunder, who also taught science, entered the room.

“Were you watching?” he asked.

Mr. Conrad, somewhat puzzled at the intrusion, shook his head no.

“The space shuttle blew up.”

In seconds, the day’s lesson was all but forgotten. The first thing we saw as the classroom tv came to life was what appeared to be a rescue pod, suspended by several parachutes, making a peaceful descent to Earth. From my seat near the rear of the class, I breathed a small sigh of relief.

Moments later, the entire launch sequence was replayed, from t-minus 10 seconds through to explosion. It was instantly clear that there were no survivors. In the midst of our collective shock, I remember a slight sense of bemusement when I heard the NASA engineer in Mission Control say there had obviously been “a major malfunction.” I turned to a classmate and said “gee, do you think?”

My predilection for gallows humor has always been there.

Watching that video now, I am struck by the full 32 seconds of silence from Mission Control, after the explosion, and before the understated “major malfunction.” One can only imagine what was actually going on in those 32 seconds, as the engineers tried to grapple with the obvious enormity of what had just unfolded.

Some time later, we dismissed for lunch. The cafeteria was abuzz. Reactions ranged from shock and disbelief to literal awe — as in, “that was awesome. I can’t wait to watch it again!”

15-year old boys are indelicate creatures to say the least.

When we returned from lunch for the final 20 minutes of class, Mr. Conrad appeared not to have moved. He sat in one of the students’ seats, in order to face the television. Chin in his hands. A blank stare on his face.

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

It didn’t dawn on me until later that this shuttle mission included a schoolteacher among its crew. Christa McAuliffe, whose name we all remember. I don’t know if this factor was what had so clearly affected Mr. Conrad, but it’s certainly possible. A professional colleague had just died in a horrific tragedy. There but for the grace of God, and so forth.

There were, of course, six other souls who perished on that mission: Francis R. Scobee, Commander; Michael J. Smith, Pilot; Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist; Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist; Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist; and Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist.

In the months and years that followed, it became apparent that the shuttle never should have launched that morning. That NASA had gambled with the lives of those seven. Was it out of neglect? Willful disregard? Valuing the life of the shuttle program above the lives of seven people? We would learn that NASA had been warned of the probability that O-rings sealing the fuel tanks could fail in cold weather. But the mission had already been delayed several times; it would not be delayed again.

I wonder now how much all of that plays together. Shuttle launches becoming passé? No problem, we’ll send a school teacher into space. Only now we’ve got more people paying attention to us than before. All these delays make us look bad. Yes, the O-rings could fail, but what’s the likelihood of that actually happening? 10%? 15%? We’ve got a program to run, launch that ship!

Within weeks, the disaster would become an afterthought. Life moves fast when you’re in 9th grade. But once a year, I am reminded of where I sat, in a school building that has long since been razed, and received perhaps my first real lesson on how fragile life really is.