Twenty-five years later, we can still learn from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
It was a very cold Florida morning, one for the record books. All the Times' North Suncoast photographers were assigned to document the freeze and with temperatures in the mid 20s it wasn't hard to find photos. I was the new guy, having joined the staff just eight days before, so I was tapped to gather everyone's film and drive it to St. Petersburg for processing.
The date was January 28, 1986 and the sky was a crisp blue with no puffy companions. In my metallic-gold Renault Alliance I picked up everyone's film and began driving south, listening to the radio for news about the scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle, Challenger. I remember thinking it would be a good morning to see the launch, some 135 miles away, from Tampa Bay. Challenger already had been rescheduled for launch several times and now there were concerns about the cold. NASA monitored throughout the night and determined the temperature at launch to be within their limits, so the launch remained a go.
This mission was special. Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher selected to fly in space, was on-board. The whole world, including millions of schoolchildren, had watched for weeks as her infectious smile and bubbly attitude brought space travel to a level we all could imagine and understand.
As I continued south down I-275 in Tampa, the radio station interrupted their musical program to begin a countdown to the launch. Then at 11:38 AM, Challenger rose from the launchpad and rumbled through the sky with telltale plumes of smoke contrasting against the crystal blue. I looked to my left briefly, then kept driving. Shuttle launches had become so commonplace to many, including me. The radio station quickly cut back to the music.
I kept driving, glancing to the eastern sky along the way. I had seen many Shuttle launches and this one did not look right. The smoke plumes formed the shape of a "Y." Sensing something was wrong I pulled over and started making photos. The music was interrupted again and I'll never forget the song, "Sara" by Jefferson Starship. At that point the announcer just kept saying "something is terribly wrong." I knew I was looking at something terrible but like many people, I just didn't want to believe it.
Twenty-five years ago today the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost when a seal in the right solid rocket booster failed just 73 seconds into their flight. Our nation was stunned and saddened.
After a lengthy investigation, it was determined that a rubber O-ring had failed to keep hot gases from escaping when the morning's cold temperatures made the rubber too stiff. How ironic that with all the gadgets and technology aboard the Shuttle, one of the simplest parts was ultimately responsible for their tragic fate.
At this point you may be wondering what this has to do with gadgets. Well, there are many things we use every day that likely were referred to as gadgets when they were first invented but over time became commonplace and were eventually forgotten. The O-ring is one of those things. So aside from the importance of looking back in remembrance of our fallen heroes to reflect on what happened that day, it's also important to learn from it.
Today as you drive around in that big gadget you call your car, think about all the little gadgets needed to make it work and keep you safe. When was the last time you checked your tires (they lose air when it's cold), your oil (the oil cap has an O-ring that can wear out and reduce oil pressure) and your brakes? The point I'm making is that all the gadgets you have in play, large and small, play a part in your ability to succeed and in some cases, survive. And as the world found out on that cold day in 1986, a simple O-ring can decide your fate.
So when you think of the Challenger 7 and also the seven Columbia astronauts from 2003 and the three from Apollo 1 in 1967, remember that in each case it was the failure of something simple that lead to their peril. That puts things in a perspective that applies to all of us.
For more information about the crews, including profiles on all the astronauts, visit NASA's web site where they have an excellent interactive multimedia piece in remembrance of the fallen crews. The Associate Press has an excellent interactive report as well.