There’s Magic as Long as We Make It

Thirty years.
On the day I heard the news at Huntsville Middle School, it had been 19 years and a day since the Apollo 1 fire. That was history, distant. Eight years before I was born.
Today, it’s been far longer than that since the loss of Challenger. And it it still looms. It’s still immediate. To be honest, in some ways, Challenger for me has left a scar deeper than the more recent Columbia.
Thirty years later, Challenger is a “why.” It motivates. It demands. It’s why we don’t take things for granted. It motivates better solutions. It demands our best. Never forget. Never forget. Never forget. Never again.
It’s an odd memory for me today. It’s something I remember as who I was then, and something I remember as who I am now. At this point, I’ve worked at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for longer than I’d been alive when it happened. It is a part of our agency history, and it informs my professional life.
But that’s who I am now. Who I was then was a kid in middle school who grew up playing with toy spaceships. One of my favorites, which helped decorate a table at my wedding last year, was the Fisher-Price Alpha Probe, one of those early transitional toys that stopped showing spaceships as tall cylindrical things and started showing them with wings.
My connection to Challenger was not as immediate as it is now, but it was bigger in some ways. The shuttle wasn’t a vehicle, it was a national mythology and science fiction and hope and excitement and science. It was the future, wrapped in tile and foam and rocket engines. And thirty years ago today, I learned that even myths and science fiction and the future can fail. There was a little less magic in the world.
But the secret — part of the real legacy of Challenger — is that there’s not. There’s magic as long as we make it.
I had the opportunity to wander Tuesday through the Michoud Assembly Facility outside of New Orleans. The factory where the Apollo I crew’s rocket was built. Where the external tanks for the final flights of Challenger and Columbia were built. The factory where Neil Armstrong’s Saturn V was built and the tanks that held the fuel that launched the first shuttle and the last, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station.
The factory where the core structure of a spaceship that will go around the moon was just welded. The factory where the rocket that will send it there is being built.
On the way down, I visited some friends, and in the midst of the visit, they bought their son a spacecraft playset he can sit inside. One of the early transitional toys showing spaceships not as things that look like airplanes, but as tall rockets and exploration capsules that fly atop them.
Their son won’t remember the shuttle. Challenger and Columbia are ancient history for him. But he’ll be seven or eight when we launch this rocket. Old enough to know, and appreciate it. A thing of wonder and hope and excitement and science fiction and the future.

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.

‘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.

Never Forget

I wrote this six years ago, but thought I would share it here today:

I always feel a twinge of guilt on January 28.

I remember where I was when I heard. I wasn’t born when Kennedy was assasinated, but like most of my generation, I remember where I was when I heard that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded.

I was in the boys’ locker room for the gym at Huntsville Middle School. I was in P.E. when it happened, so I didn’t watch it. It was not until later in the day that I would first see those indelible images, and thankfully knew what to expect by the time I finally saw them. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to watch that as it happened.

I was in the boys’ locker room for the gym at Huntsville Middle School. We were getting ready, as the news began to spread. The boy that told me had not actually seen it, he had heard from someone else. Who in turn had no doubt heard from someone else. But the person who told me had no emperical knowledge, just the word of mouth he had heard.

I don’t feel the twinge of guilt because I initially scoffed at him. I feel the twinge of guilt because I think I actually did reassure him.

That he was wrong. That he had heard wrong, or the person who had told him was wrong.
Because it could not happen. It simply couldn’t.

The Space Shuttle … the Space Shuttle, among the greatest of man’s creations … does not just blow up.

It doesn’t.

I mean, for heaven’s sake, it’s the Space Shuttle.

It couldn’t happen.

But it did.

I feel a twinge of guilt every January 28 at the thought that that student, whoever he was, had to find out twice that day that Challenger had exploded.

So that’s my story. That’s where I was; that’s how I heard. Where were you?