Space….the Final Frontier

28 01 2011

All of a sudden, space isn’t friendly. All of a sudden, it’s a place where people can die. . . . Many more people are going to die. But we can’t explore space if the requirement is that there be no casualties; we can’t do anything if the requirement is that there be no casualties.

— Isaac Asimov, regards the Challenger investigation, on CBS television show 48 Hours, 21 April 1988.

Twenty-five years ago today, on a chilly day in Florida the Space Shuttle Challenger suffered “a major malfunction”. 73 seconds after launch a small flame appeared on the fuel tank caused by the leaking of hot gas from one of the rocket boosters which ignited and caused the STS (Space Transportation System) to explode, killing all seven astronauts on board instantly.

In those days, Shuttle launches were still a big affair. The notion of a reusable machine that was capable of taking off, heading into space, doing some work and then landing like a regular airplane was hugely exciting. But STS 51L was significant in one aspect, hence the worldwide interest and the live coverage beamed globally.

One of the seven people on board was one of us. A civilian. A teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, who was to be the first “normal” person to have the chance to see this blue planet from space and to show that the conquest of space was not merely for those who had undergone years of training. Her name was Christa McAuliffe and she was the People’s Astronaut.

I had always been a huge fan of the Space Shuttle, mainly because my father was involved in the insurance of the early missions – before NASA decided to self-insure – and my first trip to the USA in 1981 had coincided with the launch of Columbia in 1981. At that time, the STS was the perfect machine. Beauty wrapped in a functional skin.

I watched as many launches as I could and this day was no different. I was seventeen, probably supposed to be at school but was at home watching the coverage on the BBC. When the seven members of Challenger’s crew took that walk across the gantry towards the Shuttle, I imagined what they were feeling, regretted not having more of an aptitude for science and mathematics and settled down with a soft drink to watch the launch.

I can still see the explosion.

Time has not dulled the cold feeling that I got when I saw the plumes of smoke from the booster rockets, the sight of the blue sky revealing what looked like clouds and was actually all that was left of the Space Shuttle. Endless replays showed the flame with the inevitable consequence, slow motion allowed us to see the exact moment when the major malfunction took the lives of seven people.

Twenty-five years later and we are once again remembering Christa, Commander Francis Scobee, Pilot Michael Smith, Mission Specialists Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair and Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis. The footage still resonates with those of us that envied those who made it into space, the sense of shock replaced by a sadness that the STS is coming to the end of it’s working life as 2011 will be the final hurrah for the reusable spacecraft.

STS 1 was in April, 1981, STS 135 will take place in June and that will be it. The Space Shuttle will be retired from duty after thirty years of expanding human horizons.

Most machines will fail some time in their working life. Challenger in 1986 had well-documented problems and the disintegration of Columbia in 2003 due to a heat-shield separation as it returned to Earth also took the lives of the seven crew, but overall the Space Shuttle was no more trouble than any other piece of metal and wires.

When it retires in June, the spectacle of a Shuttle launch will be one of the many things that we will miss. And if wasn’t for Christa McAuliffe, the dreams of a generation who may actually be able to experience commercial space travel might not have been realized.

Time may have passed but the images will never die. And neither must the desire to explore space.

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