Lessons Linger 25 Years After Challenger Tragedy

Jan 27, 2011
Originally published on January 27, 2011 11:13 am

Twenty-five years ago, an event occurred that is seared into the memory of most Americans: About a minute after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger blew apart, killing all aboard, including teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe.

The day started off innocently enough. It was unusually cold in Florida that day, but NASA managers decided to attempt a launch anyway. As a subsequent investigation made clear, the cold temperature made O-rings, which were intended to contain hot gases, fail on the solid rocket boosters.

President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to deliver his State of the Union speech on Jan. 28, 1986, but Challenger changed those plans.

"Today is a day for mourning and remembering," the president said in a speech broadcast to the nation. "Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss."

'Trauma To The Nation's Psyche'

"It was a huge shock to the American people because the space shuttle had come to represent our entire technological prowess," says Sen. Bill Nelson. In 1986, he was Rep. Bill Nelson, but he was also an astronaut. His mission aboard the space shuttle Columbia had ended just 10 days earlier.

Nelson says it was shocking enough just to think about what happened to Challenger. "And when people suddenly saw on their television screens, that was played over and over, the close-up shot of those solid rocket boosters going off in different directions about 10 miles high in the Florida sky — this was a trauma to the nation's psyche."

The country had to revisit that trauma 17 years later. On Feb. 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas as it was returning from orbit. There were no iconic pictures from the Columbia accident — all you could see was a vapor trail streaking across the sky, and then some close-ups of bits of debris.

But shocking as it was, the second loss of a space shuttle didn't hit the country in the gut the way the first one did.

"The first time it blew up, it was such a shock because most people thought it would never ever happen," says Jon Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies public attitudes toward science. "But once you get the idea that spacecraft sometimes have catastrophic events, then it becomes less of a shock."

Nelson agrees: "That's why the Challenger destruction seemed to affect day to day Americans a lot more than Columbia did years later." He says the arrogance of NASA managers and their inattentiveness to legitimate safety questions was in part responsible for both accidents — managerial problems he believes the agency no longer suffers from.

Discovering Truths About Big Science

Bruce Lewenstein, a professor of science communications at Cornell University, thinks the long-term impact of Challenger may be in how it changed the way Americans view science. He says NASA had always been the "good news" agency, freely sharing scientific findings with journalists. But after Challenger, everyone at the agency clammed up, including scientists.

"People had this image that science didn't operate that way, but in fact modern science, big science, does operate that way, and Challenger was one of the ways we discovered that, perhaps one of the most dramatic ways we discovered that," Lewenstein says.

He thinks journalists and the public came to understand that big science behaved like other big institutions — sometimes making mistakes and sometimes hiding the truth.

But Lewenstein says there was a positive legacy for NASA from the Challenger accident. When the Columbia accident occurred, the space agency certainly seemed to be more open about what was going on. That was a good move from a public relations perspective, he says.

"They were more open with information, they were more careful to get different perspectives out there. They were more careful to try to make information available," Lewenstein says.

Later this year the space shuttle fleet is to be retired permanently. NASA takes pains to remind people that space is still a dangerous place. And no doubt the agency is doing all it can to make sure President Obama doesn't have to make the same kind of speech his predecessors did before the shuttle program comes to an end.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Millions of Americans remember a televised image that was broadcast over and over again, 25 years ago this week.

MONTAGNE: About a minute after liftoff on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blew apart, killing all aboard, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to become an astronaut. NPR's Joe Palca reports on how the tragedy affected this country and American attitudes towards science.

JOE PALCA: On January 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to deliver his State of the Union speech, but Challenger changed those plans.

President RONALD REAGAN: Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

PALCA: President Reagan expressed in words what many people were feeling that day.

Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): It was a huge shock to the American people, because the space shuttle had come to represent our entire technological prowess.

PALCA: That's Senator Bill Nelson from Florida. At the time, he was congressman Bill Nelson. He was also astronaut Bill Nelson. His mission aboard the space shuttle Columbia had ended just 10 days earlier. Nelson says it was shocking enough just to think about what happened to Challenger.

Sen. NELSON: And when people suddenly saw on their television screens, that was played over and over, the close-up shot of those solid rocket boosters going off in different directions about 10 miles high in the Florida sky - I mean, this was a trauma to the nation's psyche.

PALCA: The country had to revisit that trauma 17 years later.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country.

PALCA: The day was February 1, 2003. This time, it was President George W. Bush trying to help the country deal with tragedy in space.

President BUSH: At 9 o'clock this morning, mission control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia.

PALCA: There were no iconic pictures from the Columbia accident. It was just a vapor trail streaking across the sky, and some close-ups of bits of debris. But shocking as it was, the second loss of a space shuttle didn't hit the country in the gut the way the first one did. Jon Miller thinks he knows the reason for that. Miller is at the University of Michigan, where he studies public attitudes towards science.

Professor JON MILLER (University of Michigan): The first time it blew up, it was such a shock because most people thought it would never, ever happen. But once you get the idea that spacecraft sometimes have catastrophic events, then it becomes less of a shock.

Sen. NELSON: That's why the Challenger destruction seemed to affect day-to-day Americans a lot more than did Columbia years later.

PALCA: Senator Nelson says the arrogance of NASA managers and their inattentiveness to legitimate safety was, in part, responsible for both accidents - problems he believes the agency no longer suffers from.

Bruce Lewenstein thinks the long-term impact of Challenger may be in how it changed the way Americans view science. Lewenstein is a professor of science communication at Cornell University. He says NASA had always been the good-news agency, freely sharing science news with journalists. But after Challenger, everyone at the agency clammed up - including scientists.

Professor BRUCE LEWENSTEIN (Cornell University): People had this image that science didn't operate that way. But in fact, modern science, big science, does operate that way, and Challenger was one of the ways we discovered that -and perhaps one of the most dramatic ways we discovered that.

PALCA: Lewenstein says journalists and the public came to understand that big science behaved like other big institutions: sometimes making mistakes, and sometimes hiding the truth.

Lewenstein says there was a positive legacy for NASA from the Challenger accident. When the Columbia accident occurred, the space agency certainly seemed to be more open about what was going on, a good move from a public relations perspective.

Prof. LEWENSTEIN: They were more open with information. They were more careful to try to get different perspectives out there. They were more careful to try to make information available.

PALCA: Later this year, the space shuttle fleet is to be retired permanently. NASA takes pains to remind people that space is still a dangerous place. No doubt the agency is doing all it can to make sure President Obama doesn't have to make the same kind of speech his predecessors did before the shuttle program comes to an end.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can find a timeline of the milestones in the American space program at our website, NPR.org/science. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.