An Icy Chill on a Bold Journey

Originally posted on LinkedIn January 21, 2016.

Next Thursday will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger and crew on January 28, 1986. Many who work in the space business today are too young to have seen or personally experienced the tragedy. Some were not yet born.

That day… I was a junior U.S. Air Force captain at Cape Canaveral Air Force station living my dream job preparing satellites for launch, some on the shuttle, others on expendable rockets. I remember braving the cold outside to climb to the third story roof of my Satellite Assembly Building workplace to view the launch from Launch Complex 39B ten miles away.

While eagerly anticipating lift-off as we always did, my colleagues and I went about our normal workday duties that morning. After multiple delays, largely due to the icy conditions evident from the frosted launch pad wonderland we saw on TV monitors, we finally received word that T-0 for the mission designated STS 51-L was set for 11:38 AM.

It was clear and crisp, unusually so for central Florida. From news reports we knew thousands of visitors and workers had gathered in the area, also braving the cold and the delays to watch the launch of Challenger with the first teacher in space.

Space Shuttle Challenger on Launch Complex 39B, January 1986
Space Shuttle Challenger on Launch Complex 39B, January 1986. © James Knauf

These were heady times for those of us just beginning our careers as engineers working on space programs. The Space Shuttle was operational, so we were told. There had been nine shuttle flights just in the past year. The previous flight had landed just ten days prior. In the weeks prior to that launch, there had been shuttles awaiting launch on both launch complexes 39A and 39B, the launch points for the mighty Saturn rockets of the Apollo and Skylab launches that had ended over a decade earlier. While this was to be the twenty-fifth space shuttle launch, it would be the first from the newly readied 39B.

It seemed we were beginning to realize what I had read of in numerous books I’d devoured as a kid, books like Arthur C. Clarke’s The Promise of Space, and Willy Ley’s Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space, just two of the early titles I recall. This was real!

Challenger lifted off slowly on a spear of flame, brilliant against deep blue, rolling as programmed, trailing a dense, bright white plume. Moments later, I thought, at first, I was seeing the two Solid Rocket Boosters separate. This normally occurs about two minutes into the flight. Then I realized it was way too early, quickly confirmed as the two separated boosters corkscrewed through the sky. Then, because of the viewing geometry, the bright contrails against the deep blue sky, and a dash of hope, I thought — for just a split second — we were witnessing a Return to Launch Site abort. This was a risky procedure, which theoretically had the orbiter pitching up and turning around while its three main engines burned off propellants from the huge External Tank, before flying back toward the launch site, separating from the tank, and gliding to a landing at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility. No one knew if it would even work. If only.

All of this crossed my mind in far less time than it takes to explain or write.

One of our non-technical administrative assistants pointed hopefully at a parachute, suggesting perhaps the crew had bailed out. We had to tell her this was just the nose cap of one of the boosters, the crew was very likely lost.

Of course, we now know that 73 seconds into flight, at an altitude of 46,000 feet and at twice the speed of sound, the External Tank had exploded. A Solid Rocket Booster set free by a torch of flame from a leaking O-ring near its base had ruptured it. The explosion and aerodynamic forces instantly tore Challenger apart with the loss of all seven crew and the TDRS-2 communications satellite and astronomy payloads in the orbiter’s payload bay.

The rest of that day was surreal. I was stunned, as were my colleagues. At least one immediately went home. Another knew Challenger mission specialist Ellison Onizuka from his work supporting a previous shuttle mission on which Onizuka flew. I had a scheduled space technology class that evening. The instructor walked in and began to teach, then abruptly ended class after five minutes, saying he could see in our eyes that little learning would take place that evening and we should all go home.

The nation, too, was stunned. The loss of Challenger’s crew was certainly tragic, the loss of a Space Shuttle a tremendous blow to national pride. That evening, President Reagan postponed his schedule State of the Union address and instead spoke to the nation from the Oval Office.

He consoled the nation on the loss of what many likely thought of as “the space program” in its entirety, reduced that evening to seven fallen astronauts and pieces of a spaceship littering the bottom of the Atlantic. The president spoke of loss and pain, but also of “exploration and discovery…taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons,” the future, freedom, and continuing “our quest in space.” He said, “The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted, it belongs to the brave.”

At a memorial service for the astronauts in Houston a few days later, he said, “Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.”

So we did. We picked ourselves up. It took nearly three years, but the Space Shuttle flew again (and unfortunately was lost once more before the program ended in 2011). U.S. production lines for expendable launch vehicles that had been slated for closure were reinvigorated instead, enabling other means of launching unmanned satellites. The resulting subsequent accomplishments in space are too many to list here and could be the subjects of many other essays.

While I was not directly involved in the Challenger mission, it was my first visceral experience with a launch failure, not only because of the loss of human life, but because I witnessed it first hand. It was, and is, a stark reminder of the risks involved in space flight, and consequently a vital counterpoint to the excitement that attracted most of us who work in this business. Challenger, followed by the rapid succession of failures in every U.S. launch system that occurred within the next fourteen months, and then another cycle of launch failures in the late nineties that put U.S. access to space in serious jeopardy, all drive home the truth that “launch is hard.”

That does not mean we stop trying.

Nor does it mean we should be overly risk-averse.

Nothing that is worth doing is risk free. My grandfather used to say “saf-ety first” (yes, he said it that way!). Yes, let’s be safe. However, safe does not mean risk free, nor can safety be the first priority in challenging endeavours. As Rand Simberg suggests in “Safe is Not an Option,” we cannot claim safety as “number one,” or “the highest priority.” If we do, little that is big will get done, important discoveries will not be made, great feats will not accomplished, we will be forever earthbound.

It takes a certain boldness to continue, knowing as we do, that the human expansion into space will mean losses, some very expensive, and there will be more fatalities. While prudent steps must be taken to minimize them and to deal with the risks inherent in spaceflight, human rated or not, it is possible to focus too much on attempting to eliminate rather than prudently manage risk. Loss is always possible, and with deliberate and measured risk management, it is acceptable if the objective is worthwhile.

While no lives were at risk, last weekend’s unsuccessful but oh-so-close attempt to land and recover a spent Falcon 9 first stage on an ocean drone ship is a good current example. It was the third try, all were close, and of course, they nailed the landing on dry land December 21! The lesson, as with Challenger: you take the risk, accept the loss if it comes, figure out why it happened, pick yourself up, and try again.

So on this thirtieth anniversary, remember Challenger and crew, and let’s keep going, boldly.

#ChallengerLegacy #SpaceX

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