A little more than a minute after Challenger was launched at the Kennedy Space Center on a frigid winter morning 25 years ago, the shuttle broke to pieces when an o-ring joint in one of the solid rocket boosters failed, and the seven Challenger astronauts died.
That 1986 Challenger launch was arguably the high water mark of the U.S. manned space program. Through Mercury, Gemini and the Apollo lunar exploration program, as well as numerous unmanned scientific probes, we had boldly answered the call of space. There was no apparent limit to the adventure, sense of national accomplishment and economic benefits space exploration could confer. NASA and the White House intended the Teacher-in-Space and the proposed Journalist-in-Space flights to convey that excitement to the world.
But there were fatal compromises as well. Even though the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 had created NASA for the peaceful exploration of space, and mandated a separation between scientific and military flights, the Nixon administration approved a design for a space shuttle that would blur the lines.
The shuttle was to be a “space truck” that would be used for every conceivable scientific, commercial and military purpose. By the time of the Reagan administration, the lines were confused even further by decisions to use the shuttle as a test platform for weapons testing under the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” program.
The investigations of the Challenger disaster exposed an organizational culture at NASA so influenced by politics, schedule exigencies and managerial careerism that it could never exert itself to the utmost to protect the human lives at stake. When Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, the investigative report was eerily similar.
By then, however, the public had largely lost interest in the manned space program, even as the private sector and the Russian space agency were dabbling in space tourism, where curious millionaires would be treated to a joy ride for astronomical fares.
After 2011 there will be no more space shuttle. In a stunning reversal, the massive Constellation return-to-the-moon program embarked on by the George W. Bush presidency was excluded from President Obama’s 2011 budget and is likely slated for oblivion.
There are few champions to defend Constellation other than the military-industrial complex and their congressional allies, partly because the ultimate goal of a manned journey to Mars has never seemed realistic or worth the price. Constellation also bound NASA’s future to perpetuation of the primitive launch technology of explosive rocketry vs. major investments in more exotic but benign systems like antigravity or electromagnetism.
Constellation — which former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin unfortunately referred to as “Apollo on steroids” — was also viewed by some critics as a thinly-disguised attempt to establish lunar military bases as part of a latter-day space arms race.
Is America lost in space? So it would seem. The heady days of the U.S. manned space program may be history, as veterans of the U.S. astronaut corps have gone public to point out. From a long-term historical perspective, the Challenger disaster may someday be viewed as the beginning of that decline.
Has America forgotten its aspiration to become a space-faring nation? Can those days be brought back by a country that has given away its manufacturing prowess to foreign competitors like China, and that has been devastated by two decades of economic turmoil?
Only time will tell. One thing is certain: A new vision of the place of mankind in the immensity of space is sorely needed.
Copyright © 2011, Orlando Sentinel
Richard C. Cook is a former NASA budget analyst who, in 1985, warned the agency that problems with the O-ring seals in solid rocket boosters could cause a “catastrophic” failure during launch. After the Challenger disaster, he leaked those documents to The New York Times, which became a turning point in the accident investigation. Cook is an author and consultant living in Roanoke, Va. His book “Challenger Revealed” was published in 2007.
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