Capturing the Stories of Challenger


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

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

Without question, the last chapter of Bold They Rise was the hardest to work on.

Not because it required more effort or research or anything like that, but because every word hurt.

Our publisher defined the scope of the book from the outset — the beginning of the program through the Challenger accident. Before we wrote the first words, we knew how the story had to end.

Writing the rest of the book, there was a lot of jumping around. Large portions of later chapters were written before earlier chapters. We just sort of put down the pieces where they fit.

Except the last chapter. Except the Challenger chapter. The end, we saved until last.

Which was pure procrastination. We knew we would have to write it, we just weren’t in any hurry to do so.

Challenger had always been a personal thing for me. I was in middle school when it happened, and I can only imagine that it was for me what the Kennedy assassination was for a previous generation. I was a school kid, far from involved in it, but it hurt. It was a loss.

I’ve written about it every year since. For school writing assignments, newspapers columns, blog posts, I’ve paused today to put thoughts into words, to remember, to ponder the event, its meaning, the years since. I’ve gone from being a middle school student to being part of the team creating NASA’s next launch vehicle. Challenger has gone from a national tragedy to a mandate. I’m not an engineer; I’m not designing the vehicle. But I try, every day, to hold myself to the standard I would want from those who do — “Do good work.”

The crew of Challenger’s 51-L mission were names in the news to me, far removed from my life. Eleven years ago, working for NASA, I’d not met any of Columbia’s final crew. But over the years, I begin to meet the men and women who were risking their lives. After Columbia, there were few flights for which I’d not seen in person members of the crews. It was no longer names in the news. It was people.

During those years, I’ve also had gotten to know people who were in the astronaut corps at the time we lost Challenger. I’d never talked to them about the accident; I’d never had any desire to do so. There were better things to talk about.

Working on this book, however, I did.

Joe Kerwin, one of my co-authors on Homesteading Space, was the medical examiner after the tragedy. For Joe, these were not names in the news. They were his colleagues. They were his friends. And he and his team had to identify what was left of them, and to try to determine what exactly had happened to them in their final moments of life.

We recorded the story. I cannot imagine the experience.

We first submitted the manuscript for the book three years ago today, picking this date as a small tribute.

Today, we’re reading through the manuscript one last time, with a looming deadline to send it back in for publication.

Heather has that chapter in her pile today. I’ll read it again soon. But not today. Not today.

Ad Astra, Per Aspera, Per Aspera, Per Aspera


STS107-crash-04

Maybe I should be writing this Friday. I’ve always done it today, and this year won’t be any different.

Where were you?

Forty-six years ago, when a fire during tests in an Apollo spacecraft on the launchpad killed three astronauts, I wasn’t around yet. Odds are, statistically, neither were you. The Apollo I fire has been long enough ago now that the world’s population then was only half what it is today. I knew the names of the crew for the namesake schools honoring them here in Huntsville. I was teaching at one of those schools last year on the anniversary of the loss of Columbia.

Twenty-seven years ago, I was a new transfer student at Huntsville Middle School when we lost the space shuttle Challenger. I was in the gym when I heard, and I literally couldn’t believe it. Space shuttles do many things, but blowing up, to my 10-year-old mind, was not one of them. It wasn’t until much later in the day that I knew it was true. It was a universal touchstone for my generation, and it’s odd as time passes to encounter those for whom it’s just a historical event.

Ten years ago.

Ten years ago.

Ten years ago, I was at home. I was asleep, when a coworker called to tell me about Columbia. I was addled, and it made no sense. I finally understood enough to go downstairs, to turn on the TV. To hear the repeats of “Columbia, Houston, Comm Check.” I was working at Marshall Space Flight Center already then; I had been for about half a year. It was different. It was personal. It hurt. It still does.

I made myself some promises then. I was nobody. I worked at NASA, but I had nothing to do with the shuttle or its safe flight. But I promised myself I would watch every launch. I promised myself I would watch every landing. I wouldn’t take them for granted. We, as an agency, needed to take less for granted. And even if I couldn’t contribute, I could at least hold myself to that standard. And so I did. I set my alarm for some weird hours sometimes, but I watched every crew launch after that, and I watched every crew come safely back home after that. I heard every “Wheels stop,” right up until the last time they did.

The last time I marked this anniversary at Marshall, we were still flying humans into space. We’re not, today. But we are preparing for the day we do. And this time, in a very small way, I have the honor of being a part of that. I’m not an engineer. I’m not directly responsible for safety. I’m glad to be a part of a team that does have safety as a prime value in this new rocket they’re designing. But even in my small role, in the ways that I can, I will still work to uphold that standard — Don’t take it for granted.

‘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.