21 Years Ago Today

It was a cold Tuesday morning at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO. I had attended an early morning honors class synthesizing history, economics and science, and was heading back across campus to hang out in the music lounge between classes. Elsewhere in the world, Space Shuttle Challenger had embarked on STS-51-L, notable because civilian teacher Christa McAuliffe was on board. Chicago was still celebrating Da Bears‘ Superbowl XX win the preceding Sunday.

As I walked by the campus library, I noticed that the flag was at half mast. Odd, I thought. Something big must have happened. At that time, I was also part of the news staff at the campus radio station, KDUR, so I changed direction and headed for the practicum studio.

When I walked into the studio, the Teletype machine (those machines that make the clunking sounds behind the music at the beginning of news shows) was ringing almost non stop and continuously spitting out lines of text in all capitals. In the days of the Teletype, five bells indicated either a bulletin or an urgent follow-up to a prior bulletin, and were very rare. Even more rare was a ten bell flash; these were reserved for cataclysmic events, such as the assassination of President Kennedy. I learned later that the Teletype at the radio station had received one ten-bell flash, and all the subsequent updates were five-bell follow-ups. I entered in the midst of the follow-ups.

Only one person was manning the station at the time, and he was frantic. I asked what was going on, and he said, “The space shuttle blew up.” I started grabbing slips of the Teletype paper and organizing them by time stamp so I could see the sequence of events and hand the most significant ones to the deejay.

After things calmed down a bit, I started thinking about what angle I would take on my news story about the disaster. The basic facts had already been covered repeatedly by all the news outlets, and I wanted to do something different with my story. Having been a fan of the space program for most of my life, I thought back to prior space disasters, and wondered if there were any similarities to the Challenger disaster.

I found no significant similarities in the causes of prior disasters, namely Apollo 1 and Apollo 13, but I did find that the Apollo 1 disaster took place on almost the same day as the Challenger disaster. Apollo 1 burned on the launch pad during a January 27, 1967 test, nineteen years (almost to the day) prior.

Little did I know at the time that the space program would be derailed for nearly three years after the Challenger disaster. I fully expected that they would be back in full swing within a few months, as NASA had been after Apollo 1. In the three years following Apollo 1, NASA launched numerous missions, culminating in the ultimate goal of landing on the moon in July of 1969. After Challenger, shuttles would be grounded until the launch of Discovery on September 29, 1988 and mission STS-26. (After Challenger, NASA returned to the original Space Transportation System numbering scheme that they had used until the 1983 Columbia STS-9 launch.)

All of the astronauts on STS-51-L knew the risks inherent in space flight, including Christa McAuliffe, and they chose to fly anyway. I think that was noble, and I choose to remember them as heroes and explorers who died in the course of expanding human knowledge.

Utah or Bust? Busted.

Today, a couple of ‘chutes on the Genesis landing capsule failed to deploy, which resulted in a new hole in the Utah desert floor. You can read all about it here, at least until someone realizes that the HTML file name is a little optimistic. (Currently, it says “genesis_captured_040908.html”. I’m not sure “captured” is a good euphemism for “slammed into Utah.”)

This makes two NASA return missions in a row that have failed: Columbia in February 2003 and now Genesis. It’s possible they may still recover some usable material from Genesis, but the fact remains that a simple parachute deployment mechanism seems to have failed. My guess is that this is another part that NASA had to order on the cheap because of budget constraints. (We had to send another soldier to Iraq, you know.)

The “better, faster, cheaper” mantra that NASA has been forced to recite for the last couple of decades is clearly affecting the quality of our space missions. Yes, we were able to get all three Mars landers successfully to their destinations, and that is no small feat. But we also lost a space shuttle, its payload, and the lives of the people aboard in that same time period. Genesis was a relatively inexpensive mission; it only cost $236 million, cheap compared to the $131 billion (and counting) that the War in Iraq has cost us so far.

There are advantages to the BFC mantra, though. More and more often, “cheaper” means “unmanned.” Though I’m all for manned space exploration, I think it’s smart to pave the way with unmanned missions. The research and technology required for the unmanned missions advances robotics and computer science research, and being a technogeek, I think that’s good. But the best part about unmanned missions is that they don’t cost us of human lives.

Space, like any new frontier, carries inherent risk to human life, and the people who sign up for the missions know that going in, just as our American ancestors did when they packed up the conestogas and headed west along the Santa Fe Trail. However, we do have an advantage that our ancestors did not: robotics. Why throw away lives senselessly when we can build robotic missions first?

(Of course, this leads to Asimovian ideas of the rights of machines vs. humans, and touches on a story I wrote in the late ’80s, in which an intelligent computer named Sara (after Alan Turing’s mother) feels discriminated against. But for the purposes of this blog entry, we don’t need to go there.)

Suffice it to say that the loss of research and equipment in the failure of the Genesis mission is sad, but not tragic. Had there been lives lost, it would have been tragic. As it is, we still stand to learn some things about the mission, the particles collected, parachute deployment, and our own ingenuity, and at a monetary cost about a tenth of a percent of the monetary cost of the War in Iraq. That’s quite a bit to learn, I think. It’s too bad that ratio won’t hold for the War, or for the 1,000+ coalition servicemen and uncounted Iraqis who have died as a result of it.