The 1986 Challenger accident, as well as the Columbia tragedy that followed 17 years later, could have been prevented. That’s the uncomfortable truth NASA lives with today. The signs of malfunctioning hardware were there in both cases well before the fatal flights.
There were oversights, misjudgments, shortcuts — all well-intentioned, but with unforeseen and ultimately disastrous consequences. NASA fixed the faulty equipment, nursed its wounded pride and tried to rebuild its shattered reputation. It soldiered on.
That perseverance, the dedication to stick with something through incredibly tough times, is among the most important legacies of the Challenger and Columbia accidents, a lesson that NASA needs to take to heart again as it faces the retirement of the shuttle program this year and an uncertain future.
Steven McAuliffe, whose wife, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe was among those killed aboard Challenger, put it like this: “Ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions when they remain true to themselves and enthusiastically pursue their own dreams wherever they may lead.”
Christa McAuliffe was flying as part of a NASA educational outreach initiative called Teacher in Space. Though that, along with all other shuttle guest-flier programs, ended, it led to the creation of the privately funded Challenger Center for Space Science Eduction and eventually to the incorporation of teachers into the NASA astronaut corps.
“Kids were watching to see what the adults do in a terrible, terrible situation,” said Barbara Morgan, who trained as Christa McAuliffe’s backup and later joined the astronaut corps.
“What I thought was really important for kids to see is that we figure out what’s wrong, we fix it, and we move on, and we keep the future open for our young people,” Morgan said in an interview with Discovery News before her 2007 flight. “I feel that’s really important today. I’ll feel that’s important forever.”
“Achieving great things sometimes comes at great cost,” said Pres. Barack Obama in a statement commemorating the Jan. 28, 1986 Challenger, the Feb. 1, 2003 Columbia and the Jan. 27, 1967 Apollo 1 accidents. “Despite the challenges before us today, let us commit ourselves and continue their valiant journey toward a more vibrant and secure future.”
In addition to McAuliffe, the Challenger crew included commander Francis “Dick” Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, astronauts Ronald McNair, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and payload specialist Gregory “Bruce” Jarvis, who worked for Hughes Aircraft Co. The shuttle was destroyed 73 seconds after launch due to a solid rocket booster failure that set off an explosion of the ship’s fuel tank. It was the 25th flight in the shuttle program.
Image: The shuttle Challenger astronauts at Kennedy Space Center in Florida chat with reporters before heading to the launch pad for a training run prior to their fatal Jan. 28, 1986 flight. Credit: Michael R. Brown, FLORIDA TODAY 1986 file photo.