Beyoncé Criticized, 'Insensitive' to Challenger Tragedy

Space Shuttle Challenger after breaking up a little over a minute after launch. The scene was covered extensively by live news networks.

Two weeks ago, singer Beyoncé released a surprise self-titled album that went on to make record sales. Unfortunately, it has come to light that a music video for one of the album’s songs featured audio from the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986.

Bizarrely, the song, called “XO”, uses the famous words spoken by NASA’s Steve Nesbitt as the shuttle disintegrates just after launch, killing everyone on board. As the video fades up, Nesbitt chillingly says: “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.” It would perhaps be understandable if Beyoncé’s song was actually about the tragedy, but it’s not. “XO” features happy scenes from a carnival and is about a young woman dealing with the bittersweet feelings of lost love.

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The video has generated widespread criticism, even prompting NASA to issue a press release. “The Challenger accident is an important part of our history; a tragic reminder that space exploration is risky and should never be trivialized. NASA works everyday to honor the legacy of our fallen astronauts as we carry out our mission to reach for new heights and explore the universe,” the statement reads.

On Jan. 28, 1986, only 73 seconds after liftoff, Challenger broke apart after an O-ring seal failed on one of the solid rocket boosters (SRB), allowing pressurized hot gas from inside the SRB to escape, causing structural failure of the vehicle. In the consequent disintegration and explosion, all of the crew perished.

Francis R. Scobee (Commander), Michael J. Smith (Pilot), Ronald McNair (Mission Specialist), Ellison Onizuka (Mission Specialist), Judith Resnik (Mission Specialist), Greg Jarvis (Payload Specialist) and Christa McAuliffe (Payload Specialist) died very soon after the explosion. Poignantly, McAuliffe would have been the first teacher to go into space, starting NASA’s Teacher in Space Project (that was canceled soon after). Media coverage of the launch was therefore extensive and very few Americans wouldn’t have heard Nesbitt’s haunting words across television networks.

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NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson spoke with ABC News about the video, saying, “for the words to be used in the video is simply insensitive, at the very least.”

Keith Cowing, of and former NASA employee, didn’t mince his words in calling Beyoncé out:

This choice of historic and solemn audio is inappropriate in the extreme. The choice is little different than taking Walter Chronkite’s words to viewers announcing the death of President Kennedy or 911 calls from the World Trade Center attack and using them for shock value in a pop tune.
If this was done with full knowledge of the origin of these words then this is simply repugnant. If this was done without due diligence as to the source of the words being sampled, then this is ignorance. Either way Beyoncé owes the families of the crew of Challenger an apology.

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Until this point, there may be some forgiveness for the award-winning artist — perhaps there is some underlying meaning for the audio use? Unfortunately, in a statement from the star, she doesn’t apologize and does little to calm tensions:

My heart goes out to the families of those lost in the Challenger disaster. The song ‘XO’ was recorded with the sincerest intention to help heal those who have lost loved ones and to remind us that unexpected things happen, so love and appreciate every minute that you have with those who mean the most to you. The songwriters included the audio in tribute to the unselfish work of the Challenger crew with hope that they will never be forgotten.

At best, Beyoncé’s statement reveals her naivety about what the Challenger accident means. At worst, it was used under a guise of sincerity and remembrance, to get free publicity through controversy.

Although I doubt that Beyoncé realized she’d cause unnecessary upset for relatives of those who perished, she has demonstrated a woeful disregard for a significant historic tragedy.

As Anderson points out, it could all just be down to perspective. “What we do in space just isn’t as important to young people today,” he said. And that could be the saddest thing of all.

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