It was a cold January morning in central Florida, 25 years ago today, that complacency with the NASA space program received a terrible wake-up call. In a mission that was considered so routine that only CNN was covering it (and none of the major broadcast networks), the actual moment of the Challenger space shuttle disaster went unnoticed by most. It has been reported that due to the television coverage immediately following the event, 85% of all Americans knew within an hour that the Challenger launch had experienced what Mission Control called "obviously a major malfunction". If it happened today, that window of communication would have been seconds, now that most people have access to the Internet. I don't know what's more amazing; that it has only been 25 years since this event...or that 25 years ago there was no Internet.
Prior to the disaster, STS-51 was known primarily (if it was recognized at all) as the mission that was going to carry the first U.S. school teacher into space. Her name was Christa McAuliffe, and she was a 37 year old mother of two. She joined a crew that was so diverse, it can only be compared to the TV crew of the original Star Trek's starship Enterprise. Fittingly, the 1986 movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was dedicated to the memory of the lost Challenger astronauts. That crew included 46 year old commander Dick Scobee, who's final words "go with throttle up" can be heard on the video I've posted below. Pilot Michael Smith was only 40 years old. African American astronaut Ronald McNair was a 35 year old Mission Specialist, and Ellison Onizuka was a 39 year old Japanese American from the Big Island of Hawaii. 41 year old payload specialist Greg Jarvis and 36 year old Mission Specialist Judith Resnik formed the rest of the crew. There is a beautiful memorial to these brave lost pioneers of space today on Nasa.gov. It also includes tributes to the lost astronaut heroes from Apollo 1 and the Space Shuttle Colombia, which had an incredibly successful mission before it broke up upon re-entry to the earth's atmosphere on the way home.
I remember well the horror of the Challenger disaster, and the heart wrenching memorial that followed three days later. President Reagan gave the eulogy, and I watched it on TV with my staff at KTTV, the FOX affiliate in Los Angeles. We cried our eyes out. Yes, 25 years ago you could actually take time out of a work day to watch a tribute to fallen American astronauts on TV. Like I said earlier, it was before the Internet.
Many investigations followed the tragedy, and the space program was on hold for years. It was ultimately discovered that faulty O-Rings on the solid rocket booster (created by contractor Morton Thiokol) were responsible for failing on that frosty morning. Many NASA procedures were re-vamped and changed completely as a result of this failure.
The U.S. space shuttle program is about to come to a close, with the last mission (STS-135: Atlantis) tentatively scheduled for June 2011. This mission is only tentatively scheduled in case it is needed to bring home the astronauts from the official final mission (STS-134), which is now set for April.
The fate of NASA and the entire space program seems uncertain, as budget cuts loom. For the first time ever, American Astronauts will have to hitch a ride on Russian rockets to travel to and from the International Space Station. It appears that there will be few manned missions in the future, which will only compound the tragedy that took place 25 years ago. The pioneer spirit is a core component of the American soul, and exploring the unknown will always captivate our imaginations. In the memory of those that gave their lives for space exploration, I hope the program will continue to thrive.
A few years after the Challenger disaster, I heard another American hero speak at a Hollywood television luncheon. Walter Cronkite enthralled the crowd with anecdotes about all the news events he had covered and the amazing people he had interviewed through much of the 20th century. He told a story about meeting with some Soviet cosmonauts, who had participated in the MIR space station program. They revealed that they brought a photo of the Challenger crew up to the MIR, and kept it posted on the deck of their station as a memorial. Brothers and sisters in space, their camaraderie transcended the Cold War.
Rest in peace astronaut pioneers. For you have "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God". (John Magee, "High Flight")