The most painful step yet
March 20, 1990
Mr. Richard L. Dionne
I. Introduction II. What happened A. Overview of the Space Program B. Focus on Space Shuttle Program C. Focus on Challenger D. Focus on accident III. What it means A. Previous accidents B. Domestic reaction C. World reaction D. The follow-up 1. Congressional hearings 2. Presidential Commission a. mention Ride, Armstrong, Yeager E. Where to now? 1. Sally Ride 2. Pres. Bush's 15bil Space Budget increase 3. Moon? Mars? Beyond? IV. Conclusion A. Eulogy: in memoria of the Seven
When the Space Shuttle Challenger suffered its fatal malfunction and exploded on January 28, 1986, the entire world expressed shock and concern. For a brief time following the accident, most of the media, and therefore the people, focused on the malfunction itself. Everyone wondered, "Who was to blame?", "Could it happen again?", and so on. It was not until several months following the tragedy, after the astronauts' families had begun to recover and government teams had salvaged most of the wreckage, that people began to ask what the incident would mean to the U.S. space program. For a while, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was too embroiled in its own internal reorganization to announce any plans for future liftoffs. But as the months of inactivity wore into years, individuals began asking when or if America would resume its participation in the space race. Only now are space shuttles again blasting off with any regularity from Cape Canaveral, as America attempts to regain its former lead in space exploration. However, it is as a new and less naivé country that America rejoins the spacefaring nations; much of our former innocence about the magic of space travel is now extinguished. We return to the industry of launching Americans into space with a hardened maturity, born of sorrow, that is able to accept occasional failures as an inevitable price of success. The destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger, while a tragic loss of life, served to strengthen the American space program and bring new resolve to America's commitment towards the exploration of our solar system.
The American space program was actually born in the midst of World War II. Nazi Germany was the first country to develop workable rockets of any size, which they used to lob bombs and flak onto the Allies with devastating effect. After Hitler's forces were overthrown, the United States and Russia together seized over six thousand German rocket scientists and engineers, as well as a number of working V-2 rockets. By far the greatest of these scientists was the remarkable Dr. Wernher von Braun, who was later directly responsible for the huge Saturn series rocket which sent American astronauts to the moon. But for the first twenty years of mankind's reach into space, the Soviet Union led the way. From the Sputnik I satellite which first galvanized President Eisenhower into forming the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), to the first manned sub-orbital flight, Russia consistently beat the United States at every turn.
Much of Russia's success came from the enormous amounts of cash they threw into their program, as opposed to our own National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which was formed to replace the NACA in July of 1958. A civilian agency, NASA had to fight for every budget concession they received from the government. Indeed, NASA has rarely gained more than a handful of supporters in Washington. Congress has generally adopted an ambivalent attitude towards the entire space industry, which gave a few NASA opponents such as Walter Mondale the room they needed to block new programs. The only period which saw much Presidential enthusiasm for space exploration was during President Kennedy's tenure. In fact, he was assassinated in Dallas only six days after conducting an extended tour of NASA's facilities at Cape Canaveral and Houston. The night before his murder, in a conversation with Albert Thomas (who was largely responsible for the NASA complex in Houston), Kennedy reminded the Congressman that
"Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions, the Bible tells us, and where there is no vision, the people will perish."
Besides the shocked horror it brought to the American people, Kennedy's death nearly signalled the end of our space program as well. After the enormously successful Apollo series was cancelled by a Congress grown bored with repeated lunar missions, the question actually arose as to the continued existence of NASA.
In a desperate bid for continuation, NASA conceived of the Space Shuttle and quickly proposed it to Congress. A new launch system, it would provide a quick and economical transport service to orbital space. In a contrived report which has since become infamous, NASA Administrator James Fletcher claimed that with an annual budget of 6.5 billion (compared to the 20 billion spent on Apollo) he could develop and build a fleet of seven reusable Space Shuttles which could carry satellites and experiments into space for only $100 per pound. President Nixon bought the project, but for only 5.1 billion annually, which even so was frequently reduced by frugal budget examiners. NASA was saved, but was left with the daunting task of developing a completely new spacecraft based on technologies which did not at that point exist.
One of the most significant changes that took place in NASA as a result of the Space Shuttle was that the agency lost much of its civilian freedom. In the push for funding from Congress, NASA sorely needed the support of the Defense Department, with whom they had not always been friendly. In exchange for certain budgeting concessions, NASA gave the military partial control over the Space Shuttle. The first result of that compromise was that all NASA technology immediately became classified; documents and technologies that had formerly been freely published between agencies suddenly came under Pentagon constrictions. Furthermore, the Pentagon was entitled to set various technical specifications into the design process, as this was now to be a weapon of the military as well as a tool for exploration. Between increasingly difficult technical demands from the military and diminishing budget allowances from Washington, NASA managers James Fletcher and George Low began cutting corners. Astronaut safety had always been a NASA trademark, but even a minimal escape system for the command crew would have involved tremendous cost overruns, endangering the entire project. Likewise, the decision to outfit the Shuttle with solid-rocket boosters, a system known to be fraught with hazards, was also made to lighten costs. General Jacob Smart, who served as liaison between NASA and the Department of Defense, said:
"There were all sorts of shortcuts that were taken.... And you've read recently how foolish NASA was to have discarded all those redundancies that was the soul of the Space Program. NASA didn't do it because it was stupid. They did it because they were forced to do so.... We can never be perfectly safe and it's always a human decision as just how much is enough. But in this case how much was enough was not determined by the scientists and engineers but by the politicians...."
And when the Challenger exploded, it was those same politicians who sought to close down the space program for good. In 1967, Walter Mondale was quoted as follows:
"I intend to ride [the Apollo 204 fire] for every nickel's worth of political power I can get out of it. I don't give a hoot in hell about the space program or about [NASA's] future."
One can only wonder if he and others like him wouldn't echo similar sentiments following the Challenger incident.
And the accident itself, what did that itself say about the manner in which America was approaching space exploration?The technical reasons behind the explosion have been well researched and publicized. Most of the blame has been placed on faulty workmanship and mismanagement within the contractors and NASA itself. But how far back can that blame be traced? A 1986 interview with Dr. Robert Gilruth, project manager for Mercury and inventor of the hydrofoil, revealed this choice quote from NASA chief engineer Max Faget:
"The biggest mistake we [NASA] have ever made was putting solid rocket boosters on the shuttle."
That line came from a lecture Dr. Faget gave in 1978. Von Braun worried from the start that using solid rocket boosters would lead to catastrophe. Solid rockets were used in manned flight only for braking and emergency systems, because once started they were impossible to turn off. Why then were they included in a system that NASA's best scientists swore was too dangerous to fly? Because they ran about half what a more powerful and safer liquid-fuel system would have cost. The exclusion of an escape system was made for similarly price-conscious reasons. The Space Shuttle was the first NASA vehicle ever to forego an escape system, yet was never given even a single unmanned test flight. Again, the computer controls necessary for a remote-controlled flight were simply too costly to include into NASA's post-Apollo budget. The engineers who could once have vetoed these budget-wary, hazardous decisions were overruled by military "advisors" who were led in turn by politicians. NASA had lost its soul to Washington, and was only waiting to pay the price.
While the Challenger Seven are by far the most famous deaths to result from Man's bid for space, they were certainly not the first, nor some would say, the worst. Indeed, at least thirteen Americans and Soviets have perished inside space capsules. America's first casualties occurred nineteen years and a day prior to the Challenger accident. In Apollo Mission 204, astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee all met their deaths in another senseless malfunction. The Apollo I spacecraft was undergoing a dress rehearsal for its virgin launch with its planned crew suited up and buckled in. Suddenly, an electrical circuit shorted out, producing a shower of sparks within the cabin. The oxygen-pressurized cabin ignited instantly, but screams of pain were heard within the launch control room for several minutes, forswearing the news reports which even now claim falsely that the astronauts died instantly. Nor have the Soviets built their space program without a heavy penalty. In June of 1971, Soviet cosmonauts Georgiy Dobrovolsky, Vladislov Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev orbited in the Salyut I space station for twenty-two days. Unfortunately, their Soyuz mission capsule failed and suddenly depressurized on re-entry. Normal loss of radio contact during re-entry prevented the Soviet launch base from learning anything until the smoking capsule was recovered at sea; the three cosmonauts were found dead, fried to husks.
However, long years of uneventful launches left the American public ill-prepared for the sudden destruction of the Shuttle crew. Christa McAuliffe was held especially dear by the American people as a teacher, wife and mother. Her death and that of her compatriots rocked our perceptions about the dangers involved in manned space flight. Earlier accidents had never been broadcast live over the networks, and had involved strictly military or scientific personnel, occupations known to entail a certain degree of risk. Now, however, the public was forced to re-evaluate the personal cost of manned space exploration. For the first time, an American civilian had been called on to pay the highest price of our scientific and national advancement. Was such advancement worth the price? Opinions raged on about how Mrs. McAuliffe and the Challenger crew would have answered that question, but perhaps the best answer can be found in the public's reaction. Of the teachers who applied for NASA's "Teacher in Space" program, only a smattering withdrew their applications after the accident, while hundreds more added their names to the list. Were these people asking to be martyred? Did they envy Mrs. McAuliffe her sudden, ill-borne fame? More likely, from the essays they wrote to the application committee, they were expressing their personal support for the space program and proving to the world that the Challenger crew did not die in vain. America grieved for her lost crewmen, but did not dishonor them by mistaking their intent.
Other nations of the world expressed similar sentiments, as the report of the disaster echoed around the globe. With unusual haste, the Soviet news agency Tass reported on the accident within moments, and the television news program Vremya showed tape of the explosion and wreckage that same night. In fact, perhaps due to their immunity to political repercussion from the accident, many nations showed more sense in their reactions to the accident than America. While unanimously extending their condolences to the American people, and especially to the families of the seven astronauts, many expressed worries at the outset that the accident would not prove a serious setback for the American space program. As President Pieter Botha of South America stated, "The free world has followed the United States space program with pride." The European Space Agency (ESA), the only real competitor to NASA besides the USSR, agreed that any tragedy in space involved not only the nation(s) responsible for the launch, but every nation wishing to establish a permanent human presence beyond Planet Earth. Perhaps Rodolfo Neri Vela, the Mexican astronaut who flew on the Atlantis in 1985, best expressed the international reaction to the accident:
"I could not accept the idea that this could happen. This is a national tragedy for the United States...but I believe it is a tragedy for the world as well."
The road back from the Challenger depression has been long and hard. First, the question of blame had to be settled, partially to assure the public that such an accident would not be repeated, but also because Congress, and NASA, desperately needed a scapegoat. Finding one was not easy, for ever since the end of Apollo a system of "deniability" had been entrenching itself into all of NASA's programs. A Presidential Commission was established to sort through all of the tape and accusations, in hope of assuaging guilt upon at least one of the more deserving parties. Among the thirteen appointees to the Commission were Vice-Chairman Neil Armstrong, of Apollo 11 fame; Dr. Sally Ride, an active Shuttle astronaut; and Brigadier General Charles "Chuck" Yeager, retired test pilot and first human to penetrate the sound barrier. While the Marshall Space Flight Center, who manufactured the faulty O-rings, failed to provide a completely satisfactory scapegoat, the Commission did find numerous inefficiencies within the organizational structures of both Marshall and NASA. In the Commission's final five-volume report, several recommendations were made to reduce inefficiency at the management level and improve reliability at the technical level. Furthermore, they instituted a special Audit Panel within NASA to verify that their recommendations were taken to heart. The following excerpt expresses the favor the Commission felt towards NASA, and the hopes it held for the Agency's future:
The Commission urges that NASA continue to receive the support of the Administration and the nation. The agency constitutes a national resource that plays a critical role in space exploration and development. It also provides a symbol of national pride and leadership. The Commission applauds NASA's spectacular achievements of the past and anticipates impressive achievements to come. The findings and recommendations presented in this report are intended to contribute to the future NASA successes that the nation both expects and requires as the 21st century approaches.
More than three years have passed since the fateful Challenger explosion; what inroads have we made in that time? Several important missions that were scheduled for launch in 1986 have finally been launched or re-scheduled for 1990, such as the Galileo and Ulysses spacecraft and the 1.2 billion dollar Hubble Space Telescope. Keeping in mind the tragedy that struck down the Challenger, environmentalists have fought bitterly over the Galileo and Ulysses probes, both of which are nuclear powered; fortunately for space enthusiasts, NASA has thus far beaten every effort to keep the probes out of the sky. Astronaut and physicist Sally Ride is heading a panel researching the feasibility of a manned mission to Mars, possibly accompanied by further lunar missions. President Bush is displaying more fiscal support of the Space Agency than any Administration since Kennedy's; his planned $15 billion budget increase would give NASA the kind of boost it needs to recover completely from Challenger's shadow. Plans are again being made to assemble America's first permanent space station, which in 1985 had a projected launch date of 1992. NASA has been only too happy to oblige safety-conscious engineers who wish to resurrect the unmanned booster rocket for simple "cargo runs;" Agency administrators had originally fretted when Congress asked that disposable rocket flights be cancelled in favor of manned Shuttle missions. And a new "Shuttle 2" orbiter has been designed, scheduled to debut early in the 21st century. Including such improvements as liquid propellant, an emergency capsule ejection system, and a re-usable, "fly-away" booster, the Shuttle 2 incorporates all of the costly design modifications NASA had scrapped for the original Space Shuttle.
But most importantly, the American people has had the time to absorb the realities of the Challenger tragedy, and understand some of the implications of that tragedy. We can no longer assume that the exploration and development of space is going to come without a price. We have been aware of the many financial and technological costs involved, but those were only dimly felt through a barrier of government, military, and scientific involvement. We have been forced to reconsider our perception of the men and women who must routinely sit atop tremendous towers of rocket fuel, and who must coolly perform complex technical operations as the fuel beneath them is ignited and thrusts them brutally away from the Earth. Once seen as quasi-fantastical Elven figures, who by luck or charm managed to be sent into the fairyland of space, astronauts are now regarded with more respect, and less envy, for their work is understood to be both difficult and dangerous. Finally, the public has had to re-evaluate our reasons for exploring the solar system. Clearly, the price is too high if we have no motive better than "because it's there." Some believe we should do it for scientific advancement; others see it as a technological Grail to be shared between antagonistic nations; and many have decided that it is simply not worth the price. But whatever their decisions, everyone who watched the Challenger explode that cold January morning, everyone who read the reports or later saw videotapes of the launch sequence, was forced to recognize and examine his or her own feelings about mankind's reach for the stars.
Francis "Dick" Scobee, Commander; Michael John Smith, Pilot; Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith Arlene Resnick, and Ronald Edwin McNair, Mission Specialists; Gregory Bruce Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialists. These were the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Seven men and women who unwittingly gave their lives for the dream of a nation. Unwittingly, but perhaps not unwillingly. For the six NASA astronauts, they had already dedicated their lives to the dream of exploring space and carving out Man's first foothold beyond our planet of birth. And newcomer Christa McAuliffe, she was a teacher; through her death she taught the same lessons she sought to teach in life: lessons of hope, of courage, and of determination to stand fast in times of trial. Through the deaths of these seven brave astronauts, America and the world at large has rededicated itself to the exploration and development of space.
Challenger: a major malfunction, Malcolm McConnell; Doubleday (Garden City, NY:1987).
Challenger: The Final Voyage, Richard S. Lewis; Columbia University Press (New York, NY:1988).
Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, William P. Rogers (Commission Chairman); (Created by Executive Order 12546:February 3, 1986).