‘To Touch The Face Of God’


Launch of the 51-L mission of the space shuttle Challenger.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’

—President Ronald Reagan, 28 January 1986

Twenty-five years. It’s hard to believe.

One of the first posts I published on this blog was my “Where were you?” story about how I heard. There’s an inclination to think of today in those terms. I was 10 years old. Today, I’m 35. I’ve lived a long time in between.

But my perception of the anniversary this year is different than it has been in years past, in large part because, today, I should be shipping the book Heather and I have written about the shuttle program through the Challenger accident to the publisher. And my thoughts today are very much rooted in that.

In his book Riding Rockets,astronaut Mike Mullane wrote:

“The NASA team responsible for the design of the space shuttle was the same team that had put twelve Americans on the moon and returned them safely to Earth across a quarter million miles of space. The Apollo program represented the greatest engineering achievement in the history of humanity. Nothing else, from the Pyramids to the Manhattan Project, comes remotely close. The men and women who were responsible for the glory of Apollo had to have been affected by their success. While no member of the shuttle design team would have ever made the blasphemous claim, ‘We’re gods. We can do anything,’ the reality was this: The space shuttle itself was such a statement. Mere mortals might not be able to design and safely operate a reusable spacecraft boosted by the world’s largest, segmented, uncontrollable solid-fueled rockets, but gods certainly could.”

In Greek mythology, hubris was blasphemous pride, putting oneself equal to the gods. And its consequences were almost always disastrous.

In Judeo-Christian beliefs, there’s a great story of hubris:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole Earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built.

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the Earth: and they left off to build the city.  Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the Earth.

Let me make two things abundantly clear. I do not believe the 51-L crew of Challenger was guilty of pride. And I do not believe that God destroyed Challenger because of hubris.

I believe NASA did. At their simplest, the lesson of the stories about hubris could be boiled down to the basics: “Pride goeth before a fall.”

And that’s what happened in 1986.  The agency became over-confident. It had undertaken to create a vehicle that was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken, and succeeded in creating it. But then the agency took its creation for granted. The shuttle flew, and flew well. There were problems, some of which, in retrospect, were near-disastrous. But none of those problems resulted in loss of life or vehicle, so NASA took for granted that they weren’t that big a deal.

Until, one morning 25 years ago, they were. And men and women died.

And NASA picked up the pieces. And figured out what went wrong. And moved forward.

The agency learned that it could not take its creation for granted. It was taught, the hard way, that the line between life and death is all too thin, and that every decision made needed to be made with that in mind.

It would stumble again, most notably and obviously with the loss of the STS-107 mission of Columbia in 2003.

But, as a rule, it learned the lessons. And went on to accomplish greater things than it had before the loss of Challenger.

More than 10 years ago, NASA and space agencies of the world gathered together, working together despite their many languages, and created a laboratory that went so high that it reached the heavens. The curse of Babel was, in a real way, undone.

But this time, because of the lessons of Challenger, it was done not out of pride, but humility.

And that is the legacy of 51-L.

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