Our workday at Bridge Information in St. Louis was only a few hours old on January 28, 1986 when one of my co-workers poked his head into the computer programmer’s bullpen and simply said “The Challenger just blew up.”
In those ancient, pre-Google days, we relied on electronic news wires for information, which we routed to our own in-house news database. The first story contained only the straightforward headline “Challenger explodes.” Throughout the day, the news feeds would grow horribly more robust with all the graphic details and speculation.
Without benefit of streaming audio and video, my co-workers and I kept vigil on our tiny lunchroom TV, which was tuned into CNN. We watched footage of the explosion over and over again, hearing an unfortunate NASA technician utter the now infamous phrase “Obviously a major malfunction” when all his telemetry data dropped off the screen.
The Death of a Teacher and a Dream
Prior to that fateful day, Christa McAuliffe had been the subject of countless interviews, including a hilarious appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman.” The first teacher selected to go into space, McAuliffe brought the shuttle missions back into sharp focus. Even for space enthusiasts, shuttle flights had become deceptively routine.
NASA wanted to put a civilian in space and a teacher seemed like the right choice. Journalists were next and I remember seeing photographs of Walter Cronkite in a NASA jumpsuit expressing his eagerness to take the next ride.
For a while, though, it seemed as if McAuliffe would never make it into space. Bad weather delayed the mission for several days until NASA finally gave the green light. An image of a smiling Christa McAuliffe walking to the shuttle for the final time still haunts me.
“How do you Feel?”
Journalists have to ask the tough questions sometimes, but the reporter who was standing close to Christa McAuliffe’s parents asked them how they were feeling as they watched the shuttle break apart high over the Florida landscape. I honestly wanted her father to turn to this brain-dead moron and just slap him silly. Good reporters ask questions, but even better reporters know when to shut up.
NASA (Need Another Seven Astronauts)
Psychologists say that joking about the things that hurt us is good therapy, but I was appalled at the speed in which jokes about the Challenger explosion started appearing on the radio and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), the stone-age version of Internet chat rooms.
At the time, I was an active member of a BBS called “The Junk Drawer” and, of course, the messages boards were flooded with the latest jokes (i.e. Where did that teacher take her vacation? All over Florida.”).
As a space enthusiast, I was doubly in shock and asked that everyone, as a sign of respect for Christa and the other men and women who lost their lives, to please refrain from the sick jokes, but I was shouted down.
For a manned space program that’s just about 50 years old, NASA’s death toll remains surprisingly small. We lost the Apollo 1 astronauts in 1967 and the crew of Columbia in 2003, but the deaths of Christa McAuliffe and the other members of the Challenger served as a painful reminder that exploring space does have a very human cost.
I still believe in manned space missions, but we must always remember to put crew safety over meeting a deadline.