UPDATED: Remembering the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

615px-51-L_Challenger_Crew_Remains_Transferred_(16318321587)

It’s hard for me to believe that the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up 30 years ago today, killing all seven astronauts aboard. I was in the 8th grade when it happened–at Katherine Edwards Middle School in Whittier, California–and my first reaction upon hearing other kids talking about it was that it was BS. But when I walked into science class and saw the television, I knew it was true.

Thinking back, the loss of the crew probably affected me more than other kids my age because of my dad. At the time, he was an engineer at Rockwell International, which of course had built the Shuttle. Though the ultimate fault of the accident lay with the orbiter’s booster engines during liftoff, I distinctly remember that my dad had never been a fan of the shuttle’s design or engineering.*

“Would you fly on the space shuttle if you could?” I once asked him, before the doomed Challenger flight had taken place.

“Fly on it?” he said. “I don’t even want it flying over me.”

His gallows humor about the shuttle had actually peaked a few months before the disaster, when I was still in the 7th grade. We had some sort of parent-teacher night, and we were visiting all my classes. Of course, we spent extra time with my 7th grade science teacher–Mr. Golden.

Golden was probably the most interesting, colorful and difficult teacher I’d ever had in my life. Back in elementary school, teachers warned us about him–even said he’d be harder than most college professors we would encounter. And they were right–he was a stickler for detail, and was rough on everyone, regardless of how well you were doing in class.

But he was also a flying fanatic. In fact, he’d hung dozens of model airplanes from the ceiling. So naturally, when my folks stopped by, and he found out my dad worked for Rockwell, his face lit up like he was one of his students.

“They’re going to send a teacher up on the next space shuttle mission!” Golden told us.

My dad nodded. Indeed, it had been in the news for some time.

“I applied to go,” Golden then told my dad. “Can you get me on a flight?”

“I can only get you a one-way ticket,” my dad joked, and we all laughed.

Of course, it turned out the teacher chosen to fly on that mission–Sharon Christa McAuliffe–really did have a one-way ticket.

Yeah.

I miss my dad.

****************

*UPDATE, FEB. 1: After I published this blog post, I discovered that Longform.org had put up physicist Richard Feynman‘s remarkable essay Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle, which had been included in the official Rogers Report on the Challenger disaster as Appendix F. Feyman’s first sentences left me cold:

It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management.

Further on, Feynman noted in great detail just how alienated NASA bureaucracy had grown from engineers like my father:

If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.

For years I figured my father’s distrust of the very program he spent so many years working on merely stemmed from his own exacting engineering standards. I had no clue that his views represented the norm at firms like Rockwell, not the exception.

This unfortunately begs many questions as to the extent my father and those in his group spoke out about their concerns–questions, given his passing in 2007, I can never ask.

Photo of the remains of the Challenger’s crew at Dover Air Force Base: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

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