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Challenger Tragedy - In Depth, and Deeply Felt 351

Posted by Zonk
from the /salute dept.
Patchw0rk F0g writes "On this, the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, Jay Barbree has a moving and in-depth piece on this international disaster." From the article: "During several earlier shuttle missions, disaster did everything it could to crawl into the shuttle launch system and turn it into tumbling flaming wreckage. The primary O-rings on those flights suffered severe erosion from superheated gases, sometimes accompanied by lesser erosion. And the erosion had occurred after launch temperatures much higher than on this freezing Florida day -- 53 degrees was the lowest launch-time temperature up to that time. The booster engineers felt helpless. For months, they had been studying the O-ring seal problem. They knew a disaster was coming, but no one stepped forward and said, 'Stop this train until it's fixed.'"
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Challenger Tragedy - In Depth, and Deeply Felt

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  • by orangeguru (411012) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @09:36PM (#14591044) Homepage
    Aha. Very international.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 28, 2006 @09:45PM (#14591095)
      Space ship blows up with schoolteacher and first civilian on board, I'd call it pretty international even if it's an American ship.

      I like the ever-so-impartial wording implying that they should have been able to see it coming. It's easy to talk like that afterwards but obviously they did not know or it wouldn't have happened. People who write this kind of journalistic sensationalism by exploiting human tragedy disgust me.
      • The events that could have been avoided by NASA continued through because they were more concerned about the negative press from not making a launch date than they were about listening to an engineer say that there was a problem that needed to be addressed. I have been placed in this very position myself.

        I worked for Martin Marietta and was put to work on analysis of the onboard fuel tanks for the Reaction Control System (RCS). The fuel tanks had to go through a process where they were welded together and
      • by kfg (145172)
        It's easy to talk like that afterwards but obviously they did not know or it wouldn't have happened.

        Shakespeare wrote a lot of tragedies. Do you know what it is that makes a tragedy?

        Loss of life by tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, shit blowing up, you won't find those in Shakespeare (not even in The Tempest), because those are not really tragedies. That's just "Bad Stuff" that happens.

        No, what makes a real tragedy a tragedy is that the Bad Stuff that happens is all created by acts of man and that the Bad Stuf
  • by ezratrumpet (937206) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @09:44PM (#14591088) Journal
    in making purchases based on the lowest possible price. Sooner or later, it all catches up at once. I'm reminded of the phrase, "Pay now, or pay later. Either way, sooner or later, payment is necessary."
    • by darklordyoda (899383) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @11:04PM (#14591450)
      So when NASA tries to keep costs down, people say they're cutting too many corners and endangering lives, and when they spend extra for the quality, people say they're too bloated and need to run things more like a business.

      People will complain no matter how NASA runs things, I say give them a bigger budget than the measly amount they get now and see what they can do with it.

      And yes, 16 billion is measly when you consider that it seems sometimes like they're our NIH for everything not health-related; that is, they have a finger in every stewing "pot" of research.
    • by Sebby (238625) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @11:30PM (#14591560)
      in making purchases based on the lowest possible price.

      Exactly. That reminds me of the joke in Armegeddon:

      Rockhound: "You know we're sitting on four million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder. Makes you feel good, doesn't it?"

       
      • by jnik (1733) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @10:34AM (#14592997)
        Exactly. That reminds me of the joke in Armegeddon:
        Which is a rip-off/homage of a joke I heard from Charlie Duke (don't know if it was his originally) about the Saturn V--something to the effect of "Then you realize you're sitting on top of something with the explosive potential of a small atomic bomb, that has hundreds of thousands of parts that all need to work perfectly--and it's all been built by the lowest bidder."
    • in making purchases based on the lowest possible price. Sooner or later, it all catches up at once.

      I agree. When you buy junk off ebay [sfgate.com], you're bound to get ripped off sooner or later.

  • by voss (52565) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @09:50PM (#14591115)
    I was in class, when they announced it over the intercom. For the Generation X'ers this was our 9/11. The moment that replayed in our minds for years to come.

    I suppose I'll remember those last words

    "Go at throttle up"
    • by mtaht (603670) * on Saturday January 28, 2006 @10:36PM (#14591311) Homepage
      I was sitting at the top of a flight of stairs when I saw Challenger explode. I slowly slid down the stairs, and then watched the video again and again, again, until every frame was burned into my memory.

      And although the last words on the black box might have been "uh, oh", the last words heard over the air were: "Go for 104 percent".

      Then there was this horrible "Snick!" as the radio went dead.

      There's a sample of the last sounds from the shuttle on this song [ackley.net].

      I saw Richard Feynman's eloquent demonstration of why the boosters failed, and watched him be ignored by the other members of the commission. I learned of the group of engineers at Thiokol that were overrulled by their management to give the "Go" to this mission...

      I visualize these moments in time every time I am given management directives that attempt to contravene physical law, and to this day I stay true to my profession as an engineer, and do the right thing by the physics. It's the only way I can sleep at night.

      Still, I remain haunted.
      • by Discopete (316823) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @08:28AM (#14592740) Homepage
        I was at home, getting ready for school. I had stopped for a moment to watch the launch with my parents.

        When the shuttle came apart the first words that my father said were "It was too cold, the rings didn't seal right."
        It was a haunting utterance, sort of under his breath as if he were talking to himself.

        Dad's an Aero Engineer with a company that makes some of the analysis software that NASA and the manufacturers of the shuttle parts use to determine what happens to various objects under various stresses. He said rubber couldn't be properly analyzed as there are too many different variables going on with it at any given time. And as it chills all of it's properties change from fluid to solid or somewhere in between.

        For my generation (I'm 34), I won't say this was our 9/11, but that this was our Kennedy.
        9/11 belongs to my childrens generation.
      • by isomeme (177414) <cdberry@gmail.com> on Sunday January 29, 2006 @11:28AM (#14593175) Homepage Journal
        I once managed to deflect a corporate decision that seemed certain to lead to disaster by saying in a meeting with the CEO and other bigwigs "Guys, I'm having a Morton Thiokol moment, here." Enough of them got the reference (and saw that I meant it) that they actually started listening to me.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 28, 2006 @11:17PM (#14591500)
      For the Generation X'ers this was our 9/11.

      That is asinine.

      -Gen X

    • Living on the folks dairy farm at the time had its advantages (I was out of high school five years by that time). We were having a very warm January (much like this year) and after the morning chores were done I was trying to perfect a stacked pair of 11 element yagis on 2m (146 MHz). I went into my ham shack and heard some guys talking on 40m (7 MHz) about the shuttle blowing up. I couldn't believe it so I turned on the TV and there was Dan Rather providing the terrible news and that unforgettable video
    • by thesandtiger (819476) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @12:16AM (#14591699)
      9/11 was our 9/11.

      Challenger was Challenger.

      The two aren't similar in any way, shape or form, except that people who shouldn't have died, did.
    • That is the dumbest comment I've ever heard. I watched the launch in my high school library as it happened, and I can tell you that, while horrible and shocking, the destruction of the Challenger is nothing at all like 9/11. They don't even fall into the same ballpark. The Challenger accident was just that, an accident. Nobody wanted it to happen, but it did. It was a terrible accident that happened during our quest for knowledge and discovery. 9/11 happened due to meticulous and malicious planning on the p
  • thankyou (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Hopefully, one day, we'll look back at this tragedy and say:

    "Those pioneers sure had courage! I can't believe the things they did with such primitive technology."

    Then we'll ask the space attendant for another coffee as we head off for a holiday to the moon.
    • Re:thankyou (Score:2, Insightful)

      I used to think that when I was a young fartknocker. Now I'm a mid 30's fartknocker who is jaded. I figured by now, we'd all be able to buy a ticket to the moon. Now I think we are doomed to spend forever on this planet until we've used up the resources we'd need to make it a reality.

      I hope I'm wrong.
  • Maybe (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Xymor (943922)
    "They knew a disaster was coming, but no one stepped forward and said, 'Stop this train until it's fixed." Oh I'm sure someone tried, and probably was shut by the long arm of politcs like this guy http://politics.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=06/01/ 28/1816238 [slashdot.org]
  • 20 years later (Score:2, Informative)

    by saskboy (600063)
    It's 20 years later, and the first Shuttle disaster is still making it into pop culture. There's a country song from just last year with the line, "The Space Shuttle fell out of the sky, and the whole world cried" - 19 Something.

    I remember that someone made a movie a few years after called Challenger I think, and I begged my parents to let me stay up to watch it. It turned out to be a really lame movie though, I thought it would have stuff on what happened after the disaster, but the whole movie led up to
  • Feynman's account (Score:4, Informative)

    by acidblood (247709) <.ten.ppced. .ta. .oiced.> on Saturday January 28, 2006 @10:07PM (#14591188) Homepage
    An excellent account (and really, one should expect no less from Richard Feynman) of the Challenger disaster was given in the book `What do you care what other people think?' It highlights the political and managerial problems at NASA. If you enjoy this book, I highly recommend grabbing the rest of Feynman's books as well, such as `Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman' and of course the Feynman Lectures on Physics.

    Feynman was by far one of the greatest minds of our time. Too bad he died fairly young (70 years), he still had a good 10 or 20 years of time to contribute to human knowledge.
    • Re:Feynman's account (Score:2, Interesting)

      by VaticDart (889055)
      Hear hear!

      Another great account of Feynman's involvement in the post-Challenger investigation is in James Gleick's biography of Feynman, Genius, which is a great book otherwise. Incredible mind, awesome person, that Feynman was, I wish I could have met him...

    • Re:Feynman's account (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Squonk01 (635994)
      And the problems at NASA continued in January 2003 with the Columbia explosion. Presentation-of-data guru, Edward Tufte, makes a good claim that clumsy PowerPoint inhibited decent analysis [edwardtufte.com] that could've prevented a disaster. (Tufte cites Feynman's work among others.)
  • by reality-bytes (119275) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @10:08PM (#14591192) Homepage
    A fact often missed by the popular media when dealing with the Challenger accident is emergency egress provision.

    The 'big step' taken moving from the Saturn V launcher to the Shuttle for manned flight was not just moving from expendable to [partially] re-usable vehicles but the total reliance in the new vehicle for launch safety.

    If practically *anything* were to go wrong during the launch of a Shuttle, it would be curtains for the vehicle and crew whereas the Saturn V had the 'option' of the Launch Escape Tower [wikipedia.org] which could (in theory) give the crew one last chance of getting clear of the failed vehicle using it's relatively small solid rockets.

    I've often imagined what could go wrong with a shuttle launch, there are possibilities such as:

    *Catastrophic multiple SME failure just after SRB ignition leading to an over-rotation heads-down
    *A Mis-light of an SRB on the pad (prior to launch) - Apparently NASA takes huge precautions with their SRBs due to volatility of the solid fuel.
    *A Mis-light of an SRB on launch causing over-rotation of the vehicle away from the lit SRB(NASA *says* this is of infinitely small chance tho)
    *Failure of the SRB release system on the pad (the tie-downs which hold the vehicle in place prior to launch)
    *A simple bird-strike causing damage to the orbiter's pressure hull.

    And of course, there is the failure of components leading to rapid combustion of the LOX/Hydrogen fuels.

    Perhaps none of the above could realistically happen, perhaps some could. (I'm no expert, just a fan of manned spaceflight).

    What I do know is that I'll be happier about people sitting on top of massive potential energies when they give them a Launch Escape System again. It's not a certainty but it's nice to know that the Astronauts get one last chance if the rest of the vehicle falls to bits.


    Disclaimer: I am not one of these people who thinks that spaceflight is, should be, or can be as safe as say civillian aviation.
    • *A Mis-light of an SRB on the pad (prior to launch) - Apparently NASA takes huge precautions with their SRBs due to volatility of the solid fuel.
      *A Mis-light of an SRB on launch causing over-rotation of the vehicle away from the lit SRB(NASA *says* this is of infinitely small chance tho)

      Well duh... you just have your robotic friend ignite the other one.. just like in the movie [imdb.com].

    • by darkmeridian (119044) <william@chuang.gmail@com> on Saturday January 28, 2006 @11:01PM (#14591441) Homepage
      The entire problem with the Shuttle was that it abandoned the vertical stack design of previous spacecraft in favor of a "paralllel" stack. The Apollo program had the escape tower because the humans were on top. Ice and debris from the stack could not hit the heat shield and cause injury. The Shuttle is right next to the rocket and cryogenic fuel tank. No escape systems, no protection of the heat shield against debris strikes. The next generation of planned manned craft will revert to the entire vertical stack concept.
    • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot@@@hackish...org> on Saturday January 28, 2006 @11:21PM (#14591527)
      First, multiple SME failure just after SRB ignition was problematic, but it has never been problematic due to over-rotation---there is sufficient steering ability even with just the SRBs. The problem is that multiple SME failure causes too much of a difference in thrust between the shuttle and the boosters, which would overstress the struts attaching the SRBs to the shuttle. In addition, a failure of two or more (of the three) SMEs would result in insufficient power to attain orbit.

      Since Challenger, the struts were strengthened, so they can now survive even a three-out situation. A two-out failure can now be dealt with without loss of life throughout the launch (although it would require a ditch and loss of the vehicle through some portions). A three-out failure is still problematic, but should be survivable for the crew after 90 seconds, and might be survivable just after launch.
      • One of the reason more failure modes are now survivable for the crew is that post-Challenger a bailout ability was added: If the shuttle is stable and under control and still not too high, but has insufficient power to either attain orbit or reach an emergency-landing airstrip, the crew can put it on autopilot and bail out with parachutes, using an egress pole that allows them to clear the left shuttle wing.
    • The SRB filling is very similar to a fertilizer bomb. Actually, the oxidizer is even more powerful than fertilizer. The fuel is unusually powerful too, though not unheard of for bomb making.

      A fertilizer bomb is normally very difficult to detonate. To reliably set one off, you pretty much need a quarter stick of dynamite. Every now and then though, somebody gets unlucky. The largest non-nuclear explosion in the US was when a ship full of fertilizer exploded in a Texas harbor.

      We don't normally put sticks

    • A Mis-light of an SRB on the pad (prior to launch) - Apparently NASA takes huge precautions with their SRBs due to volatility of the solid fuel.

      Volatile? While the fuel is a bit more volatile than tire rubber, it isn't a great deal more so. The fuel itself resembles a soft rubber. The one issue is that once the fuel ignites, it doesn't stop burning until all of the fuel is consumed.

      OTOH, jst before the first flight of Columbia, NASA and Rockwell engineers discovered a trick circuit that could lead to sim

  • by Corf (145778) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @10:10PM (#14591201) Journal
    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of--wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
    I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air....

    Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
    I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
    Where never lark nor even eagle flew--
    And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

    High Flight
    John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
    June 9, 1922 - December 11, 1941 (age 19)

    • by srmalloy (263556) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @02:55AM (#14592162) Homepage
      High Flight
        John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

      Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth(1),
      And danced(2) the skies on laughter silvered wings;
      Sunward I've climbed(3) and joined the tumbling mirth(4)
      Of sun-split clouds(5) and done a hundred things(6)
      You have not dreamed of -- Wheeled and soared and swung(7)
      High in the sunlit silence(8). Hov'ring there(9)
      I've chased the shouting wind(10) along and flung(10)
      My eager craft through footless halls of air.
      Up, up the long delirious(12), burning blue
      I've topped the wind-swept heights(13) with easy grace,
      Where never lark, or even eagle(14) flew;
      And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
      The high untrespassed sanctity of space(15),
      Put out my hand(16), and touched the face of God.

      FAA Supplement to "High Flight"
        (1) Pilots must ensure that all surly bonds have been slipped entirely before aircraft taxi or flight is attempted.
        (2) During periods of severe sky dancing, crew and passengers must keep seatbelts fastened. Crew should wear shoulder belts as provided.
        (3) Sunward climbs must not exceed the maximum permitted aircraft ceiling.
        (4) Passenger aircraft are prohibited from joining the tumbling mirth.
        (5) Pilots flying through sun-split clouds under VFR conditions must comply with all applicable minimum clearances.
        (6) Do not perform these hundred things in front of Federal Aviation Administration inspectors.
        (7) Wheeling, soaring, and swinging will not be attempted except in aircraft rated for such activities and within utility class weight limits.
        (8) Be advised that sunlit silence will occur only when a major engine malfunction has occurred.
        (9) "Hov'ring there" will constitute a highly reliable signal that a flight emergency is imminent.
        (10) Forecasts of shouting winds are available from the local FSS. Encounters with unexpected shouting winds should be reported by pilots.
        (11) Pilots flinging eager craft through footless halls of air are reminded that they alone are responsible for maintaining separation from other eager craft.
        (12) Should any crewmember or passenger experience delirium while in the burning blue, submit an irregularity report upon flight termination.
        (13) Windswept heights will be topped by a minimum of 1,000 feet to maintain VFR minimum separations.
        (14) Aircraft engine ingestion of, or impact with, larks or eagles should be reported to the FAA and the appropriate aircraft maintenance facility.
        (15) Aircraft operating in the high untrespassed sanctity of space must remain in IFR flight regardless of meteorological conditions and visibility.
        (16) Pilots and passengers are reminded that opening doors or windows in order to touch the face of God may result in loss of cabin pressure.


  • 5 pages on the astronauts and one page on the actual engineering that led to the failure, and most of that writing was awfully emotional and fact free. It would have been nice to see that side of the story covered in some more detail. No surprise the human element grabs the attention, but there was probably a good human story on the ground too, and one that actually had a causual relationship to the event.

  • Feynman (Score:5, Informative)

    by Errandboy of Doom (917941) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @10:21PM (#14591235) Homepage
    The Challenger disaster sparked a lot of insightful commentary [fotuva.org] about the shuttle program from Richard Feynman [wikipedia.org].

    The Rogers Commission [wikipedia.org] relegated the bulk of his thoughts to an "Appendix" because no one wanted to release a report that was too critical of the space program (even though that's exactly what they were appointed to do). It almost wasn't included at all, but for Feynman's dogged insistence.

    He deals with his role in the Rogers commission in No Ordinary Genius [google.com] (that's a link to the beginning of the Chapter from Google Print).

    That chapter is filled with funny anecdotes, and enraging stories about the bullheadedness of beaurocracy, told by one of the most charismatic geniuses of our time about one of the most important events from my childhood.

    Highly recommended.
  • "tragedy" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bcrowell (177657) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @10:21PM (#14591238) Homepage
    "Tragedy" is one of those words that gets thrown around too lightly. These were people who knowingly took a risk in order to do something they believed in. They wound up losing the bet, and getting killed. That's not a tragedy. A tragedy is Romeo and Juliet, or a 10-year-old factory worker in Thailand getting killed while working to pay for medicine for his sick mother. A tragedy is not astronauts getting killed in an explosion, or mountain climbers getting killed by bad weather, or a volunteer soldier getting killed in a war he believed in.
    • A tragedy is not astronauts getting killed in an explosion

      It bloody well is for their family. "Oh, daddy got killed at work today. Oh, well - he knew the risks. What's on MTV?" I don't think so.

      To say nothing of your assertion that a work of fiction is more of a tragedy than real people dying.

      TWW

    • Re:"tragedy" (Score:3, Insightful)

      by gilroy (155262)
      Well, classically, tragedy dealt with the fall of a hero due to an innate flaw, usually that of hubris (excessive pride). Hmmm... seems like it pretty much nails NASA prior to Challenger.
    • And do you really think that those seven astronauts weren't taking a risk for something they believed in and loved? They died while attempting to increase our knowledge and may have lived if the engineers' advice weren't ignored. That disaster was a tragedy by your own definition. They were real people, not just strings of words on a page, so show a little respect.
    • Re:"tragedy" (Score:2, Interesting)

      by eumaeus (733945)

      According to Aristotle, who may or may not have known what he was talking about, the "most tragic" stories are those that involve morally average people (not especially good or bad, morally), who are of great stature or who have enjoyed great fortune, who fall from a state of happiness to a low state due to some "mistake made in ignorance".

      Note: this has nothing to do with hubris, which does not mean "pride" anyway..

      So we have our social studies teacher, a woman of national stature, enjoying great good

    • Re:"tragedy" (Score:5, Insightful)

      by pjt48108 (321212) <pjt48108@[ ]oo.com ['yah' in gap]> on Sunday January 29, 2006 @01:23AM (#14591898) Homepage
      You are correct, even though people are flaming you. 'Tragedy' IS a word too freely used, as is 'hero.'

      You correctly note that they were aware of the risks, they took the risks, and lost. It's not technically 'tragic' or 'tragedy,' but that doesn't at all dismiss the deeply sad, unfortunate nature of the accident, despite the binary view some are ascribing to your comments.

      The accident itself is just one in a larger series of events which might collectively be considered 'tragic." As someone noted in comments, there is usually a tragic flaw--such as hubris--giving rise to the tragic events, collectively known in literature as 'tragedy.' In this case, the tragedy is the larger story of humans defying nature and assuming nature had been conquered. This is hubris, on the part of American administration officials, members of Congress, engineers, management officials, and contractors, etc., across decades, culminating in the Challenger disaster.

      The 'Challenger Tragedy' is what you could call the story leading from the end of Apollo to the loss of Challenger, and its immediate aftermath, such as the hearings, etc.

      Likewise, the 'Columbia Tragedy' would have a similar narrative background, with its own tragic flaw: management deciding to eschew on-orbit imaging because there was "nothing we can do," if damage was found, anyhow."

      Both are sad, dramatic events, but not tragedy. I take a contrary view to what yet another commenter wrote, that it was offensive for you to compare real loss of life to fictional loss of life. To be more accurate, people calling the loss of either shuttle a tragedy are themselves using literary terminology to oversimplify a complex series of decisions and actions into a cable news soundbite, and this oversimplification ("The astronauts' deaths were tragic") cheapens, in my view, the loss of seven Americans engaged in the noble pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

      And with that, I shall adorn myself with aerogel pants and await the flaming...
    • by jd (1658)
      In this context, "tragedy" is being used to describe a fatal incident that was needless, entirely preventable and created through arrogance and pride. In that sense, it is very similar to "Romeo and Juliet" - the romantic aspect has nothing to do with the tragedy, the tragedy is a result of the self-serving, self-centered arrogance of the families involved leading to death after death, a chain of entirely stoppable events that nobody chooses to stop.

      In that sense, Challenger followed by Columbia were of an

    • Re:"tragedy" (Score:4, Insightful)

      by MrPerfekt (414248) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @05:17AM (#14592426) Homepage Journal
      In the respect that they were killed in the vain of trying to push our boundaries of what we can do as humans, this accident qualifies as a tragedy.

      Just because you accept risk doesn't mean you waive all rights to sympathy, especially in light of more "noble" causes.
  • Am I callous? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 28, 2006 @10:27PM (#14591270)
    I was in preschool or something when the disaster happened. I had no awareness of it until many years later.

    But when I think of the disaster now, I have the somewhat odd reaction that I don't really feel that the real tragedy was the loss of Challenger and its crew.

    When I think about the 20th anniversiary of Challenger, the tragedy I feel is that it seems like NASA has done almost nothing of note since then.

    It seems like somewhere around the Challenger disaster, the pioneering attitude of NASA that had been its hallmark up until then took something of a backseat. Somewhere around 20 years ago, probably not at Challenger or because of it but certainly sometime around then, NASA changed from being a truly important thing of importance to the public to just being something the government does. 20 years later, the manned space program has not progressed one single step beyond where it was when Challenger blew up; we're still stuck using the exact same shuttle fleet, and the manned program has been entirely preoccupied with the maintenence of a couple of space stations that aren't really that far beyond SkyLab and whose crews are preoccupied just keeping the things in the sky. NASA has had a small handful of true triumphs with its unmanned probes since that time, but the successes have been far between and have tended to receive only a fraction of the attention given in the public eye to NASA's failures.

    And when I think about this, and realize that it represents, essentially, the loss of the nation's manned space program sometime about 20 years ago, it tends to overshadow entirely in my mind the tragedy of the loss of Challenger's intrepid crew sometime about 20 years ago.

    Is this a callous response, or a reasonable one?
    • Re:Am I callous? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Darth_brooks (180756)
      It seems like somewhere around the Challenger disaster, the pioneering attitude of NASA that had been its hallmark up until then took something of a backseat.

      You don't really have the point of reference based on your age (technically, neither do I, since I'm only a couple years older than you), but that "pioneering attitude" had taken a backseat long before the shuttle program had even started.

      The "Failure is not an Option" program that ran on the History Channel this evening (in the US, just so I don't pis
  • by mswope (242988) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @10:31PM (#14591290) Journal
    Crap. This is still taught as an ethics lesson. An engineering manager (Roger Boisjoly) was told to think like a manager rather than an engineer (I believe the term was "take off your engineering hat and put on your manager hat") and the process was approved. I feel for the guy that had to make this decision, because it occurs on the knife-edge that most of us engineers are taught about, but never experience. However, he came to that point, and history will record that he MADE THE WRONG DECISION.

    "The booster engineers felt helpless ...'No one stepped forward and said, "Stop this train until it's fixed,"'" IS CRAP. Someone said "Stop." Then, he said, "okay," after he switched hats and the world has never been the same since.

    The reason I'm so harsh about this is that it could've been any one of us that call ourselves "engineers." We should NEVER forget the lesson from this. Someone went against his training AND his instincts and, as a result, PEOPLE DIED.
    • Boisjoly was not told this; it was told to his manager, Lund, in the emergency meeting at Morton Thiokol the night before. Boisjoly, and his peers, were overruled by Lund and HIS management.

      But your point that no one said "stop" being a falacy is correct; quite a few people did, and were simply overruled. To everyone's detriment.
  • by llZENll (545605) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @10:41PM (#14591341)
    "but no one stepped forward and said, 'Stop this train until it's fixed.'"

    And if anyone had, we would have never known about it, and they probably would have been fired.
  • by StressGuy (472374) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @10:42PM (#14591347)
    First off, I actually read the article - all eight pages of it. I was also a college student attending Purdue the day of the crash studying, oddly enough, aeronautical engineering and taking a class in propulsion with a proffessor who was a consultant for Morton-Thiokol (just Thiokol soon after). I remember a few things about this in particular.

    It seemed that, almost as soon as the camera crew realized what had happened, they zeroed in on McCauliff's family. It took a while for the cameraman to get his payoff though, she didn't really react for quite some time. No doubt not fully able to comprehend what just happened.

    When I got to my class that morning (psychology), I found the professor had also just seen the footage, he cancelled the class. None of us were really into it at that point.

    The local news was all over the propulsion professor asking him for theories/insight. At that point though, nobody really knew what had happened and speculation is foolish.

    By the end of that day, I was hearing "Need Another Seven Astronauts". In contrast, I've yet to hear any such wise-assed remarks about the Columbia reentry disaster.

    ===

    It's easy to second guess NASA's decision making but, when you are in that moment, it's a hard trigger to pull. I've no doubt that engineers were concerned about the integrity of the O-ring seal. However, when they launched, they were within published spec. Sadly, the spec was wrong. In that situation, it becomes your (expert) opinion vs. established data. You might be right, but it's hard to push through.

    I say all of this because I'm right in the middle of something similar. I see a situation that management characterizes as "agressive" and I would call "reckless" - but it's just my opinion. I can't go to the appropriate regulating agencies with anything that would stick. All I can really do is what I've done, I resigned. On paper, I said the recent benefits change was not meeting my needs. Behind close doors, however, I went into very frank detail about how I felt their current philosophies could put people at risk, and how I could no longer represent them in good faith.

    I looked for a way to compel the needed changes from my position, but was unsuccessful. I was well respected there, perhaps by resigning and making sure they understood why, they will be motivated to re-evalute. I don't really know.
    • by lord sibn (649162) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @11:13PM (#14591487)
      You do not hear jokes about Columbia's re-entry because the topic has faded from the limelight. People are not all up at arms (bad joke) about the space race. People generally do not care about the shuttles, about the stardust probe, or about anything space related any more. We are entering another dark age; people had been told of the great things the future could hold. And it didn't. So no, they do not care about the current shuttle program. Where is my flying car? Why don't I live on a moon base? Remember that geeks don't rule the world. Regular people do. As a direct result, nobody cares about nasa. Not any more. they bought the snake oil the first time, and lost 7 astronauts. They are not interested in another round of bus fare, as it were. I am seriously trying to not sound like a troll here, but honestly, normal people don't care about probes hovering over the north pole, collecting stardust, or another failed shuttle mission. They are used to being disappointed by nasa so much, that they no longer pay attention to nasa at all. You just have to remember, normal people don't care about nasa any more. They grew up with dreams of exploring space. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice... can't get fooled again.
  • They knew a disaster was coming, but no one stepped forward and said, 'Stop this train until it's fixed.'

    The didn't step forward and say anything because no one in management wanted to hear the bad news. If they complained, they might have lost their jobs.

    Just got done watching a documentary about Enron. Same thing happened there. Many people saw potential problems and critics and anyone questioning them were fired or put down. One of the Merrill Lynch analysts who questioned Enron's earnings was fi

  • by EBFoxbat (897297) on Saturday January 28, 2006 @10:48PM (#14591379)
    Am I the only one that thinks that Columbia was the worse of the 2 shuttle crashes? I mean really, Challenger was catostrophic but was unsurvivable once the SRB ignited. Columbia was in orbit for weeks with its fatal problem in view of the entire planet had anbody thought to look. They say nothing could have been done had they found the damaged in orbit, but I have this funny feeling that we, as a planet, probabaly would have come up with something and not let them run out of O2.
    • Let's start with Challenger, on the ground as that is the easiest. There are wires running to the cabin such that, in the event of a launch-time failure, the crew could slide down the wires to a concrete bunker which could survive a launchpad explosion. This would have required millisecond timing on everyone's part. The moment the flames came from the side of the boosters, the crew would have needed to simultaneously slammed open the hatch, shut down the main engines (rockets don't lift instantaneously and
      • Wow, this post is just hillarious. Have the crew jump out of the cabin after the explosion and have the chase planes catch them on the way down?

        I love it when any space-related stories get posted here. Half of slashdot suddenly thinks they're rocket scientists. It can often be funny watching them try...

  • i was in 6th grade science class watching live. before and after, i still wanted to be an astronaut.

    i've often wondered how different things would have been had the challenger been the success that was expected. more women in science? expanded exploration instead of a near shutdown of the entire agency?

    i do know that an entire generation of school children went from being incredibly curious about space to being afraid of space to being uninterested in space. which is very sad; since the people who died live
  • by seven of five (578993) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @12:06AM (#14591681) Homepage
    I didn't see the live event but I saw the replays soon after... I may be wrong but this might have been the first time news networks replayed a live disaster over and over. The disaster was bad enough but the replays made it hypnotizing, overwhelming.

    The same thing happened on 9/11 with jets crashing.

    I hope when the next thing happens I'll have enough self control to shut the damn tv off. I sure didn't those 2 times.
  • by JetScootr (319545) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @12:20AM (#14591711) Journal
    It was a tragedy, an accident, a misfortune.
    A tsunami that kills 125000 people and makes millions homeless is a disaster. A hurricane and weak levees that kill hundreds, combined with a helpless Department of Homeland Security that unhomes 1.3 million, that's a disaster.
    An earthquakeor volcanic explosion that kills hundreds or thousands and destroys entire towns, that's a disaster.
    A vehicle accident that kills 7 people is not a disaster, no matter how expensive the vehicle is or how famous the people are.
    It is the "Challenger Accident", not the "Challenger Disaster".
    Keep some perspective.
    • That term, as used to describe either event, refers to the media fiasco that occurred immediately following the accidents, as in "PR disaster".
  • Don't forget to watch the two included videos on this nice article. It was interesting to watch the KNBC4's news feed from that time. I remember that news anchor! I wished it could show the whole thing, uncut, for us curious viewers.
  • The same thinking that resulted in that accident stayed around and caused the next accident.

    As long as we have a space agency that works in the "Lowest Bidder" enviroment we will have these problems.

    • Problem is, if you don't use the lowest bidder philosophy you end up with the "highest bidder" philosophy, which costs a hell of a lot more and doesn't work any better. I'm not sure what the solution is, but simply opening the purse strings isn't it.
  • Warnings (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 29, 2006 @12:58AM (#14591823)
    I am a space scientist/physicist who worked directly on OMS shuttle components. I chose to resign in June, 1985, from a test engineer position at a major spacelab, citing insufficient support for safety and concern for the physics of flight: the environment of those times was, in my view, a concern for how much money could be made, and how much we individuals could pocket for ourselves. I was asked to lecture on my final day, and warned that someone would die, in a big way, if we engineers did not get back to thinking about what we were there for. Six months later, I flipped on the tube, saw Dan Rather somber, knew it popped, flipped the tube back off.
  • I've been watching a history channel show on NASA and the missions from the early 60's through today. It's interesting how deep the emotions are but one thing that's obvious is that the people in mission control have had to make some very intense decisons over the last 4 and a half decades. It's easy to blame engineers who did not yell loud enough or management that did not listen or political administrations that were pushing for success, but the truth is while there have been a handful (3) of tragedies r

  • A foreigner's view (Score:3, Insightful)

    by comp.sci (557773) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @03:07AM (#14592193)
    I am sorry but I fail to see the big relevance of this accident. Everybody will agree that it was a sad thing to happen, but these people took the risk willingly and knew they could die.
    Every day people die in, for example, car-crashes. Where is the outcry from the public every time seven people die in the U.S.?
    To me this just seems like a case of totally misdirected nationalistic pride that makes people focus on events like these and forget that hundreds of americans die every day because they could not afford the healthcare they would have needed.
    Every country has events like these happen, followed by the usual period of national sorrow, but this one just makes me realize how skewed our perspectives are: we mourn the death of 7 volunteer astronauts but refuse to think of all the other deaths that could have easily been prevented...
    Why? My bet is both on human nature and the way these cases are presented (by the media). They give us a sense of companionship in sorrow, but are a great distraction of all the other shortcomings of our society today.
  • by comp.sci (557773) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @03:15AM (#14592204)
    A while ago I read a newspaper article that included an interview with a sports commentator. The commentator was known for his way of putting all his heart into the soccer-games he commented and it was not uncommon for him to refer to a loss of his team as a "horrible tragedy". However, one day one of the players collapsed on the field and died, leaving behind his family and friends. This, the commentator said, made him realize the true meaning of the word "tragedy" and helped him put things into proportions. From this day on, he never used the word "tragedy" again in connection to sports. While losing a game might not be a happy thing, way worse things could happen to you. Similarily, the deaths of seven volunteers on a risky mission decades ago is a horrible thing, but let's not forget to put things into perspective and look what things are going wrong right now and how catastrophic the situation is for so many people all around the globe.
  • A small Tragedy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kevinbr (689680) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @07:07AM (#14592609)
    It is of course sad that these people lost their lives, but this article highlights a big problem with the American Media. All over the world people die everyday. People die from natural disaster and others die from wars. The problem is this: the US Media NEVER delves into any foreign deaths to any degree like this. Imagine this articles depth and emotion aimed at:

    A Dead Palestinian Child ( Killed by an American funded missile - what went wrong to cause this death, why was this death wrong)
    A Dead Iraqi Child ( Killed by an American funded missile - what went wrong to cause this death, why was this death wrong)
    etc etc

    Coming soon the never written article about dead Iranian Children.

    So we navel gaze about this death or that death and was it preventable. If we perhaps demanded from our media to delve with such detail and emotion into the thousands and thousands of deaths that we either cause directly or indirectly every day by our misadventurous policies around the globe.

    Every page we write and view about past events ( well past and well covered by now ) is one page less for the voice of those innocent dead that have no voice.

    In the end with people resorting to "terrorist" violence as a reaction to attacks or injustice on them and their children, our lack of attention the root causes of these LARGE tradegies has and will continue to come back and bite us.

    Sadly the Challenger explosion attracks the lazy voyeur in us all, easy to see and watch, compelling.......but in the overal scheme of things essentially meaningless except as a symbol of corporate greed and cost cutting which leads to short cuts. But we all know this and still do nothing.

    So perhaps in the end, even if the American people were subjected to detailed heart wrenching stories of dead foreign babies, they would just yawn and turn the channel.

    But who knows?

    we do know that when there is a disease, failure to treat the root causes often leads to deaths. In simple terms we kill them they kill us and the cycle of ignorance revolves round and round.

    Meanwhile, apologies for spoiling the feel good sadness over 7 deaths.......7 deaths that have had enough column inches by now.
  • by superultra (670002) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @10:50AM (#14593050) Homepage
    I was 4 when Columbia launched on April 12, 1981. I remember having to wake early to watch it. It was 4am in Edmonton, and the living room and house were still dark. But when the shuttle's engines ignited, the bridal white smoke from the shuttle's boosters filled our living room with light. Those same boosters propelled Columbia upwards, leaving a bright yellow trail of still burning fuel in the sky and on our tv screen.

    I was tired. It was magnificent.

    I had probably seen a rocket launch before, and I'm sure its raw power impressed me. But I think what drew me to the shuttle was its streamlined, white grace.

    STS-1 was the first full launch and mission of a space shuttle, and it is one my first memories.

    I have another space shuttle memory just as vivid. I am at the part of my daily journey from school to home where the park's sidewalk meets the street's. I am staring up, wondering if I can see the white "horns" of the Challenger explosion from the blue of the sky.

    I am afraid that a piece of debris will land on me.

    My childhood is filled with references to space. I devoured space books. I vastly preferred space Lego to the plain city bricks. When my friends and I played, we imagined we were in space more often than not. My parents raised me on a steady diet of television and film science fiction, not the least of which were Star Trek and Star Wars.

    I'm not the only to have a space-filled childhood. Look no further than the 1986 film Space Camp. The movie is really just a series of plot devices so as to create a childly plausible situation in which a few kids get to pilot a space shuttle. In the end, the boys get the space shuttle, the girl, and the robot. You can't argue with that. It's a horrible movie actually, but I remember my friends and I seeing it several times, and re-enacting its scenes. It was cool.

    My brother believed he would turn his room into a spaceship. Even though I frequently teased him about it, I secretly admired his tenacity. He studied schematics of spacecraft, starcharts, and physics. He's still working on it.

    This month's Wired features an amateur spy satellite tracker named Ted Molczan. He is older than I am, but his childhood sounds similar, only with Apollos instead of Columbias and Challengers.

    There are many of us, to us space meant more than emptiness. It was an ideal. Space represented progress, hope, and nobility. To think about space was to wonder. Culture reinforced this. Star Trek was perhaps the best example, with its frontiered hyperbolic optimism. But even the fairly vapid Star Wars infused space with adventure and excitement. Planetside was filled with moisture vaporators and blandly colored sandstorms. Space was permeated with color and sound, excitement and destiny.

    Last night I had another visceral memory. When I threw the newly-purchased baby clothes into the washer, time stopped. The collective white of onesies and soft blankets froze in mid-air and I realized that I was washing a child's clothes - my child's clothes - for the first time.

    Having recently read the Wired article, my immediate second thought was that my son or daughter would never know the wonder of space like I did, like we did.

    I was sad.

    This is how it is: space is now empty, dirty, and dark. The space shuttle is an antique. The laptop that I write this blog post on is incredibly more powerful than the ones that control the space shuttle. NASA is a joke. Americans see space more as a source of tourist dollars than a place to find ourselves. Bush's announcement of a moonbase and a trip to Mars was more political foliage than inspirational provocation. Culture is either ignorant or apathetic of space. It is merely a place where things happen, a set, and little more. And, of course, we have no room for something as ridiculously triumphant as Star Trek. Fifty years of unrequited romance has fundamentally changed our perception of the big black.

    What kid wants to be an astronaut anymore?

    I'd like to say mine, but I've changed too.

  • by FleaPlus (6935) on Sunday January 29, 2006 @08:35PM (#14595556) Journal
    Looking through the article and several of the comments here, there doesn't seem to be much of a focus on the "big picture" lessons from the Challenger accident. There's a recent post Rand Simberg made at Transterrestrial Musings which sums up some of my own thoughts on the matter:

    http://www.transterrestrial.com/archives/006406.ht ml [transterrestrial.com]

    It's twenty years today since Challenger was lost with all aboard. It was the first real blow to NASA's confidence in its ability to advance us in space, or that our space policy was sound. It finally shattered illusions about twenty-four flights a year, to which the agency had been clinging up until that event, but it wasn't severe enough to really make a major change in direction. That took the loss of Columbia, three years ago this coming Tuesday.

    Unfortunately, while that resulted finally in a policy decision to retire the ill-fated Shuttle program, the agency seems to have learned the wrong lessons from it--they should have come to realize that we need more diversity in space transport, and it cannot be a purely government endeavor. Instead, harkening back to their glory days of the sixties, the conclusion seems to be that, somehow (and inexplicably) the way to affordability and sustainability is exactly the approach that was unaffordable and unsustainable the last time we did it.

    But one has to grant that Apollo was safe, and probably the new system will be more so than the Shuttle was. But safety shouldn't be the highest goal of the program. Opening frontiers has always been dangerous, and it's childish to think that this new one should be any different. The tragedy of Challenger and Columbia wasn't that we lost astronauts. The tragedy was that we lost them at such high cost, and for missions of such trivial value.

    This is the other false lesson learned from Challenger (and Columbia)--that the American people won't accept the loss of astronauts. But we've shown throughout our history that we're willing to accept the loss of brave men and women (even in recent history) as long as it is in a worthy cause. But NASA's goal seems to be to create yet another appallingly expensive infrastructure whose focus is on recapitulating the achievements of four decades (five decades, by the time they eventually manage it, assuming they keep to their stated schedule) ago.

    Will the American people be inspired by that? I can't say--I only know that I am not.

    Would they be inspired by a more ambitious program, a riskier program that involved many more people going into space at more affordable costs, even if (or perhaps because) it is a greater hazard to the lives of the explorers? I surely would. But it seems unlikely that we're going to get that from the current plan, or planners.

(1) Never draw what you can copy. (2) Never copy what you can trace. (3) Never trace what you can cut out and paste down.

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