Twenty-nine years ago today, I was in the gym at Huntsville Middle School when I heard the news. The space shuttle exploded. I’ve told the story several times about the poor student whom I convinced had misunderstood. Space shuttles don’t explode. It’s just not something they do.
The irony is, I was right.
No space shuttle ever exploded. In writing “Bold They Rise,” I gained greater understanding than I ever wanted of what happened on January 28, 1986, down to the fraction of a second. Of how a burn-through of the solid rocket booster began a series of events that led to the disintegration of the vehicle.
For 10-year-old David, the loss of Challenger was a remote but personal experience. I had no part of it, no connection to it, but I was touched by it. To say it was a moment I will never forget is understatement. Almost every year since, I have written something on the anniversary – thoughts, recollections, tributes.
Over time, these anniversary markers have evolved. The become less about the event itself and more about the passage of time, and the shadow that event still casts. I wrote about marking the anniversary for the first time from Marshall Space Flight Center, having a greater connection to the story. Four days after writing that, I awoke to learn we had lost Columbia. It was, to put it lightly, not a good day. I wrote about the anniversary as NASA prepared to, and then finally succeeded in, launching a teacher into space, Christa’s back-up, Barbara Morgan.
I’ve now lived almost three times as long since the loss of Challenger as I had before. I’m about to marry someone born after that day, for whom it is purely a historical event. Time and tide.
Which leads me to my wedding day. On March 15, I’m getting married.
I mention that in this story not because of where I’ll be that day, but because of where I won’t be. That week, just a few days earlier, many of my coworkers will be in Utah. There, they will witness the first qualification firing of the solid rocket motor for NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket. This test and a follow-up will clear the upgraded and enhanced boosters for flight on the new rocket.
This is, quite literally, a long-awaited milestone for SLS. Preparations for the test were already well underway when I started working on the program two years ago, but a potential issue was discovered. Changes that had been made to the booster, to improve performance and make them more environmentally friendly than the shuttle boosters, had some unexpected side effects.
The booster team was left with ideas as to how to address those issues, but no definitive answer, and no exact timeline as to how long it would take to find them. There was also no definitive answer as to what would happen if the test were conducted with the issue. The program had two options — take the chance and continue the test, or take the time and find the answer.
The program chose to take the time.
In about a month and a half, their hard work will pay off. I do wish I could be there to see it, but there’s somewhere else I’d rather be.
I think it’s easy for history to be overly critical of the decision to launch Challenger, but, without question, mistakes were made.
The fate of Challenger, and later of Columbia, were sealed with a single argument — “We know there is an issue, but we have reason to believe it won’t be a problem.”
I was not in the meetings where the decisions to delay the booster test were made. I don’t know how much temptation there was or wasn’t to proceed with the test, and gain reason, rightly or wrongly, to believe the issues weren’t problems.
But I am proud, very proud, to be part of a program that chose not to. I am proud, very proud, that we took the time to get it right.
Another anniversary. Another year. And, this year, that is how we honor the memory of Dick, Mike, Judy, Ron, Ellison, Greg and Christa.