Challenges in Interpreting Challenger


I was three years old on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger disaster occurred; I have no personal where-were-you-when memories of the event. Years later, someone told me that everyone who worked at NASA knew that the seven astronauts would definitely die, but no one said a word – an illustration of the power of pressure to go along with the group, even when lives are at stake. Ever since, hearing or reading anything about Challenger has given me the heebie-jeebies, even though nothing I’ve read has matched the absoluteness of the account someone told me when I was younger. The reality is nonetheless chilling, as described by engineer Roger M. Boisjoly:

It was approximately five minutes prior to the launch as I was walking past the room used to view launches when Bob Ebeling stepped out to encourage me to enter and watch the launch. At first I refused, but he finally persuaded me to watch the launch. The room was filled, so I seated myself on the floor closest to the screen and leaned against Bob’s legs as he was seated in a chair. The boosters ignited, and as the vehicle cleared the tower Bob whispered to me that we had just dodged a bullet. At approximately T+60 seconds Bob told me that he had just completed a prayer of thanks to the Lord for a successful launch. Just 13 seconds later we both saw the horror of destruction as the vehicle exploded. 

The story we know today is one of a preventable tragedy.

Memorial to Challenger at Arlington National Cemetery

Memorial to Challenger at Arlington National Cemetery

On January 28, 2012, the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, as well as on NASA’s Day of Remembrance on January 26, science and history museums offered words, and sometimes events, of tribute to the seven members of the Challenger crew. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) tweeted the seven names: “Challenger STS-51-L crew: Michael Smith, Francis Scobee, Ronald McNair, Elison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.” NASA’s Goddard Visitor Center and Arlington National Cemetery posted, on their respective Facebook pages, the same photo of a Day of Remembrance ceremony held this year. Goddard Visitor Center also posted a link to a detailed description of the scientific aspects of Challenger. Seattle’s Museum of Flight retweeted NASA’s announcement about the other events memorialized by the Day of Remembrance: “MT @NASA Day of Remembrance to honor crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia and those who gave their lives to explore nasa.gov.”

One theme in social media posts was the bravery of the crew and the awe inspired by the exploration they had hoped to undertake. California’s Columbia Memorial Space Center tweeted, “Today we remembered the crew of STS-51L and strive to continue their mission of education and discovery. pic.twitter.com/i3FJvPNI.” NASM’s blog states:

Seven special Americans lost their lives barely a minute into their ascent toward space the morning of January 28, 1986. Each had a story, a rich life, and dreams for the future—all curtailed too soon.

This theme was even more evident in the responses people left to such postings. Some folks quoted Ronald Reagan:

“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.'” — Ronald Reagan (response to NASM’s Facebook posting)

Some other audience responses:

“may the men and women who fell inspire my generation and future generations to come so that they can explore space and solve its problems” (response to NASA’s Facebook posting)

“Our homeroom teacher, Mr. Slattery, walked to the TV and turned it off and then addressed the class. It couldn’t have been easy, but he managed to calm a large group of emotional teenagers somehow. I don’t remember his exact words, but his theme was that exploration comes with a cost and it’s for the explorers to decide if that risk is worth it. And that, unfortunately, sometimes you pay the ultimate price…. Non est ad astra mollis e terris via; There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.” (response to NASM blog)

One Facebook user simply responded, “damn… all because of that gd o-ring” to the Newseum’s Facebook posting.

Many people wrote what they had been doing that day, where they had been, whether they were watching on television and, if not, how they had found out. People wrote not just that they had been in school, but they often also named what grade they were in, their teacher, and what class period was going on at the time.

The National Postal Museum’s blog quotes Ronald Reagan: “I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons.” While it is true that there is great risk in exploring the frontier of space, “taking a chance” on experts’ safety recommendations in favor of social or political pressure need not be part of “taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons.” Indeed, NPM’s blog states, “engineers at the site reportedly warned that temperatures were too cold for certain equipment on the shuttle to function correctly.”

NASM’s blog explains that the causes of the tragedy

had to do with human error in understanding data, communicating, making decisions, and becoming complacent about safety. The commission determined that the Challenger tragedy had been “an accident waiting to happen” that was not averted because NASA had a “broken safety culture.”  These findings prompted widespread changes in spaceflight operations to better ensure that safety issues received due attention, without shortcuts or poor assumptions.

NASM’s blog further states:

Spaceflight is inherently risky, and there are no shortcuts to the management of risk.  Vigilance is the price of safety, and vigilance cannot be relaxed. Pay attention if something isn’t right; it may be telling you something important. Communicate clearly and be disciplined in decision-making.

One commenter on CNN’s Schools of Thought blog bluntly mentioned the ignored whistleblowers: “Christa and the others would not be dead today, if the narcissistic pigheaded NASA officials would have listened to the ones who [knew] not to launch because it was too cold.”

The tragedy of Challenger deserves a layered response that includes the honoring of those lost, the awe of science and exploration, admiration for the bravery of shuttle crews, and the recognition that any of us—not just astronauts—could be put in a position in which we might need to blow a whistle. From Ronald Reagan to the everyday Facebook user who posts comments, many people rightfully speak of the courage of those who let themselves be launched into space. What should also be acknowledged is the courage of those who speak out against dangerous or unethical decisions in the workplace. And of course, employers should foster a work environment where employees feel safe to speak out. There may be no easy way from the earth to the stars, but there should be an easy way to share information that could save lives.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Museums and Holidays, National Postal Museum, Newseum and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Challenges in Interpreting Challenger

  1. how wonderfully well-put! and i’m serious, read Feynman’s account of his time on the investigation committee. even in the text, you can sense that he was seething with anger at the institutional “blind eye” found at nearly all of the levels of the administration. the safety numbers he throws out about what the engineers could reasonably produce versus what the administrators expected are really quite frightening.

  2. disciullo says:

    Thanks! I am interested in reading that book.

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