30 Years Later, Challenger Casts A Long Shadow On NASA

Thirty years ago, the United States suffered a serious blow to its psyche. Even more importantly, it suffered a serious blow to its worldly exceptionalism. And our nation has never truly recovered.

It was during the crisp morning hours of Jan. 28, 1986, when the Challenger space shuttle soared into the sky like so many prior missions. But just 73 seconds into its flight, disaster struck, with an explosion that ended up killing all seven crew members: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the space shuttle program, as well as the formation of the Rogers Commission, a special panel appointed by President Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. In its study, the Rogers Commission found that NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes had been key contributing factors to the accident. Further, NASA managers had known for nearly 10 years that the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters’ design contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in its O-ring seals, but they had failed to address this problem properly.

The Challenger disaster remains one of those unique and singular moments etched into the collective and individual souls of those who watched it unfold. Like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the falling of the Twin Towers on 9/11, there are millions who can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when Challenger exploded. In fact, it may have been the first major disaster broadcast live and uncut to the world; the launch was broadcast live on CNN and was being simultaneously shown at countless schools across the United States in recognition of McAuliffe’s involvement with NASA’s “Teacher in Space Project.” It is likely more children than adults witnessed the event while at school that day. Media coverage of the accident was extensive; one study reported that 85 percent of Americans surveyed had heard the news within an hour of the accident.

In a televised address to the nation that night, President Reagan told a shocked and grieving nation that the legacy of Challenger would not be curtailed ambition for the space program, but accomplishments that would have made Challenger’s crew proud: “To reach out for new goals and ever-greater achievements — that is the way we shall commemorate our seven Challenger heroes.”

But through a wider view of history, that was not to be. In many respects, Challenger derailed the unparalleled American space program so much so that it never truly recovered. Despite occasional successes, like the Hubble Telescope in 1990 and collaborative efforts with other nations on the International Space Station, the body blow of Challenger is one that has left NASA a hobbled shell of what it once was. The agency that put a man on the moon suffered terrible damage to its reputation, followed up more than a decade later by the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle during re-entry in February 2003.

This is ironic, given the near universal reverence nearly all Americans had for NASA from the mid-1960s until Challenger. The space race pitted the former Soviet Union against the United States, creating a post-World War II Cold War scientific golden age. Fifty years ago, we had a space rival to fight. By 1986, the United States had far and away won the space battle, and Challenger became not only a signal of our own mortality, but of NASA’s insulation from accountability.

Since then, the space shuttle program has ended and NASA largely looks to less lofty efforts, as private firms compete to lead a new space era where American space exceptionalism is challenged by other nations around the world. We Americans fantasize about space adventures in Star Wars and Star Trek, but NASA has neither funding nor a spacecraft to deliver astronauts to Mars any time soon, and its budget is minuscule compared to other federal projects.

This is depressing. If the United States looks to continue standing high on the lofty pedestal of world leadership, space exploration is one area where we have a chance of truly taking the torch and running with it. Fifty years ago, we were champions of space. America has a duty and an obligation to reclaim that crown.