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Saturday, January 28, 2006

A grim anniversary

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle explosion. This is one of those events permanently etched on the American psyche, so much so that people can tell you where they were at the time it happened. I was a file clerk in the buying department for the now defunct Wieboldts stores in Chicago when I first heard about the tragedy. It was early morning in January 1986 and Chicago was still celebrating the Bears Superbowl victory. I hadn't immediately heard about the tragedy, so I was walking down the aisle praising the Bears' win and wondering at the solemn faces of other employees. I especially wondered at a particular employee's request for a radio; she was the assistant to the main buyer and was a stickler for non-shirking; she never played a radio or anything to interrupt her work.

Only when I got back to my cubicle that I shared with another employee did I find out about Challenger. The shock and sadness was immediate. This was to have been the advent of regular travel into space, beginning with schoolteacher Christa McAuliff's voyage. But the enormity of the tragedy didn't hit me until I later saw the footage and heard those words that reverberate in my memory: "Go with throttle up" which was followed by a large plume of white smoke coming out of the shuttle's rear, signalling a problem to NASA personnel; I don' t think the onlookers initially knew what was happening until they saw the smoke trail off in various directions. Only then did it occur to the viewing audience that something had gone horribly wrong.

The nation mourned the deaths of the crew and especially of civilian Christa McAuliffe, a young wife and mother. Her death seemed to make the tragedy more poignant for all of us. It didn't diminish the deaths of the others, but astronauts, just like firefighters, police and soldiers, know the risk going in. I don't think Christa fully knew that she was risking her life; she simply thought of it as an adventure to help bring the wonders of space to children across America, for this mission was to have been fed through satellite to various schoolrooms.

We had hoped Challenger would be the last tragedy of this kind because supposedly we were going to be more diligent about safety measures and not shortcut on procedures to make certain that the shuttles were flightworthy. Unfortunately, we learned with the deaths of the Columbia crew that this was not the case. Again, there had been avoidable mistakes and shortcuts taken to prevent the mission from being delayed - at the cost of the crew's safety.

MSNBC News writes on the myths surrounding the shuttle tragedy, including claims that the disaster was the unavoidable price to pay for space exploration. The article goes on to say these statements were "self-serving rationalizations on the part of those responsible for incompetent engineering management."

One wonders have we learned our lessons well, or will our hearts be torn open again as we watch another shuttle plummet from space?

On this anniversary of the Challenger shuttle disaster, I list here the names of the crew of both the Challenger and Columbia shuttles; they deserve some mention in the blogosphere because we so soon forget those who sacrificed their lives in the name of science and discovery, measures that have enhanced the lives of everyone:

Challenger crew:

Shuttle Commander Frances R. (Dick) Scobee
Shuttle Pilot Michael J. Smith
Mission Specialist Judith A. Resnick (the 2nd American woman in orbit during the maiden flight of Discovery in 1984)
Mission Specialist Ronald E. McNair (the 2nd African-American astronaut to launch into space during an earlier Challenger shuttle mission in 1984)
Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka
Payload Specialist Gregory B. Jarvis
Civilian-Teacher Christa McAuliffe

Columbia crew:

Shuttle Commander Rick Husband
Shuttle Pilot William McCool
Engineer Kalpana Chawla (one of the first women of Indian descent to be chosen for a NASA mission flight)
Mission Specialist David Brown (this was his first mission)
Mission Specialist Laurel Clark
Mission Specialist Michael Anderson (2nd Af-Am astronaut killed in space)
Payload Specialist Ilan Roman (the first Israeli in space)

To paraphrase the memorial for the Columbia crew that befits all of them:

"The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of these souls we mourn today. The crew of the Shuttles Challenger and Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home."

Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 1/28/2006 08:14:00 AM Permanent Link     | | Home


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