Rand Simberg pointed out yesterday that it was the thirty-seventh anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire. I was too young to remember that event (being about two and a half years pre-birth at that time), but I do remember what happened eighteen years ago today.
Many of the people I work with were involved with the Shuttle program at that time, so I heard several different “where I was” accounts today.
Me, I was a junior in high school. I had lunch period starting around noon. A few minutes into lunch, one of my friends (a big space nut, who had been to space camp several times and knew all sorts of Shuttle specs and arcana by heart) came in and sat very quietly at the table. He was white as a ghost, and from the look on his face something was very obviously wrong.
We asked him if he was okay, and he told us that the Space Shuttle had just blown up. For a moment, there was silence, and then we all scoffed…”Naaaah, you’re just joking!” Was there even a Shuttle launch scheduled that day? Did anyone (besides Joe) even pay attention to the boring old Shuttle anymore? It had to be a joke, and he had done a good job of faking us out there, for a moment anyhow.
But no, he insisted that it was true. After trying for several minutes to convince us, someone suggested looking for a television — surely it would be all over the networks if the story were true. For most of us, our next period was a programming class (Pascal, on the original Macintosh), and someone remembered that there was a big TV hanging on the wall in the computer lab, one the teacher sometimes used as a monitor for instruction purposes.
When we got there and rigged the monitor up as a receiver again, the first thing we saw was the now famous footage of the forked exhaust plumes hanging in the sky, the SRBs spiralling away out of control to either side of the big white cloud that had just recently been a fully-fueled Shuttle.
At that point, we began to believe him.
Unsurprisingly, we didn’t do any programming work in class that day. Instead, we watched the explosion footage over and over, from a couple different angles, and the footage of the reactions from the crowds gathered to watch the launch live — most notably in the auditorium of Christa McAuliffe’s school. Here were these kids, some not much younger than we were, watching and cheering, and then suddenly growing very quiet and wide-eyed, and then bursting into tears and sobs.
I don’t recall being all that upset at the time (any more than I was when Columbia burned up a year ago Sunday), but at some point later, the footage of the launch, and especially the images of the forked plumes, became unwatchable.
This afternoon, in a staff meeting at work, someone played a video, in which the signature footage of the two disasters was compiled together to illustrate why safety and doing the job right is so important. Sure enough, there was the famous “Go for throttle-up”/forked plume footage from Challenger, and after it came some footage (obviously more recent) from inside Mission Control at JSC. In this footage, the controllers are sitting at their stations, watching the monitors, as a series of blips track Columbia’s progress along its planned ground track. There are a few snatches of radio traffic, in which the crew is told that everything looks fine, aside from some slightly high readings from the wheel-well sensors, and is asked to repeat the last message. Then, a burst of unintelligible audio. Then a voice saying over and over, “Columbia, Houston, please respond…”. From there, the video switches to the now-famous footage of the comet streaking across Texas…..which was, like the plume footage from Challenger, the first thing I saw on television after being told about the accident.
It didn’t have quite the impact that the Challenger footage used to have, but it was much more disturbing than it was last year, when the accident happened. I suppose it takes a while for the importance and emotional impact of some historical events to sink in.
At the time of the Challenger accident, there was a brief time (a few days, maybe a week) when it was an open question whether the U.S. would go back to space, whether the Shuttles would ever fly again. But soon, we were assured that yes, the fleet would “return to flight” (a phrase I never expected to hear again after watching STS-26 lift off, between classes in a friend’s dorm room, having just started my second year in college by that time). And a year and a half later, NASA announced that a fifth flight Orbiter would be built — surely a sign that the program and the U.S. presence in space would continue.
Little did we know that it would continue going around in circles for the next fourteen-plus years.
After the Columbia accident, it looked to me even more likely that the U.S. might give up on space. Not at first, no, and not highly likely, but much more likely than after Challenger. The ISS program was long-delayed and massively over budget, and it was becoming apparent even to the public that it would never live up to the promises made for it. NASA had lost two Mars probes due to (frankly) stupid mistakes, and had botched yet another attempt to build a replacement for Shuttle, prompting many to wonder if the agency still had “what it takes”. And when presented with the opportunity to renew public interest and enthusiasm for its mission by opening the hatches of ISS to a nascent space tourism business, NASA peevishly informed the citizenry that space was not for them, but only for an elect few subsidized supermen who were above such pedestrian things as paying for the trip and enjoying it as an end in itself (yes, it was mostly Dan Goldin, but the agency as a whole bore the mark for his sins). It was not looking good for NASA, after February 1, 2003.
There had also been, for some time preceding the accident, calls from the space advocacy community for a new vision for NASA, something more meaningful and productive than growing bean sprouts and tadpoles in microgravity. And this accident has ultimately brought that call to the forefront.
This time around, the loss of an Orbiter has indeed meant the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program — but not immediately, and not in a way that results in our having no space program left at all. As I noted here on the day before Columbia’s final launch, it took a terrible shock for the agency — and the Administration — to get serious about a new approach to getting to space, and to find a new purpose for doing so.
It’s too early to say whether this latest effort will bear fruit any better than its predecessors of the past two decades. But with any luck, on the eighteenth anniversary of the Columbia accident, we’ll be able to look back on some real progress in opening up space.
And with a whole lot of luck, we may be doing that looking back from Mars.
[Update: the time stamp on this post is deceiving -- I actually published it after midnight on the 28th, but the date reflects when I first saved the draft. Hence the text appears to be a day out of synch with the anniversaries.]