Reflecting on the Space Shuttle Disasters

Explosion of the Challenger shuttle. (Credit: NASA, Kennedy Space Center)

I was still relatively fresh to my first full-time job involving some form of science writing in January 1986. The H. W. Wilson Company, publisher of the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature—an indispensable reference work in those pre-Web days—had hired me and a roomful of other writers in the Cambridge, Mass., area to work on a new product to be called Reader’s Abstracts. Like the Guide, it would organize citations for all the magazine articles published in given year by subject, author and other criteria, but it would go one better by providing 150-word summary abstracts for each of those articles so that readers could identify which of the listed articles came closest to answering their needs. Such an ambitious reference would be too gigantically cumbersome in a book format, so it would be published in the medium of the future: microfiche. (Again, the year was 1986.)

The company had leased a large second-story, open floor-plan office on Brattle Street in Harvard Square and turned it into a cheerfully appointed word-processing sweatshop. Every day, the other writers and I would work our way through hundreds of magazines, scanning all their articles for comprehension and writing short abstracts of each, with a target output of three or four an hour. Because of my background, I handled most of the scientific or technical titles: among them, Science, Aviation Week, and (prophetically?) Scientific American.

On the last Tuesday of that January, like many of the writers, I bugged out of the office at noon to grab a sandwich and give my brain a respite from the endless throng of magazine articles demanding distillation to their 150-word quintessence. My self-absorbed, oblivious reverie carried me through Harvard Square’s streets, the bookstore at the Coop, the park outside Grendel’s restaurant. When I returned to the office, my cubicle mate, a gentle, sandy-haired Brit with a mischievous sense of humor, was already there, looking uncharacteristically sad.

“The space shuttle exploded,” he said.

I’m old enough to remember JFK’s assassination; it’s the earliest public event to carve a place in my memory (because when you are four years old and every adult you know is crying, you don’t forget it). For many members of a younger generation, though, I know that the explosion of the Challenger fills a similar niche. It’s the event that first teaches you how much occurrences involving people you don’t know and places you’ve never been can touch your life.

When the Columbia shuttle tore apart on re-entry on February 1, 2003, I learned of it from a phone call that interrupted a placid Saturday morning and sent me rushing to coordinate coverage of the disaster with Phil Yam, then Scientific American’s news editor, and our web editorial team. The accident also prompted me to write a commentary that went online a few days later, “The Cold Odds against Columbia,” and its subhead captured my theme cogently: “The cost of exploring new frontiers is measured in human lives, but it would be wrong not to question whether that cost must be so high.” In particular, I discussed the shuttle’s motley origins and questioned whether the risks for the manned flights made since, given how dubious the goals of its overarching mission were. An excerpt:

None of this history or the estimates of calamity are obscure; if anything, they littered the media back during the early years of the shuttle program and immediately after the Challenger explosion. The Challenger, of course, was felled by faulty O-rings, and physicist Richard Feynman and the Rogers Commission that investigated the crash argued successfully that this flaw was the result of bad planning and inadequate oversight built into the program. Problem identified, fix applied, and the shuttle program was far safer for it. Still, an unintended consequence of the defective O-ring discovery may have been to distract the public from the fact that, beyond problems of error or incompetence, the shuttle’s jack-of-all-trades design and operational profile pose fundamental safety problems that virtually guarantee eventual disasters.

Of course, even though the Columbia’s wreck has refocused the issue, perhaps awareness of the 2 percent loss rate doesn’t change anything. Such losses of life (and equipment) might be acceptable because space exploration is such a spiritually rewarding pursuit, one befitting a great civilization. A human presence in space is symbolic, if nothing else, of our species’ curiosity and deep-seated drive to explore, some of the noblest motivations in our nature. In past centuries, mariners dared to sail the oceans in search of new lands with far worse odds of survival. The astronauts themselves certainly knew the dangers. Perhaps as a society we should not quail from the risk now.

But if we do value astronauts’ lives, it would be immoral not to reexamine what we are gambling them on and whether the odds might not be improved. One dead crew per decade is a high price for a manned space program with uncertain aims and uneven scientific value.

Eight years later, I’m struck at both how much and how little space exploration has changed since then. The launch of the Atlantis now set for June 28 is the last scheduled shuttle mission, after which the U.S. will depend on Russian Soyuz rockets and private commercial spacecraft (still in development) such as the Dragon by SpaceX, and any successor vehicle that NASA may develop. Yet the long-term objectives of manned space missions remain unclear. Are we really going to Mars? Will space tourism ever be more than an indulgent bragging opportunity for the adventurous rich? I don’t know.

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