A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.

Challenger | Columbia

Challenger Columbia
Paul, David and I were having lunch in the cafeteria. Joe, one of those kids who’d been to Space Camp and was a true fanatic about the space program, came in and sat at our table, his face drained of color, in something of a daze. Obviously something had him upset, but we couldn’t imagine what — his attitude was so unlike Joe and so out of place that it didn’t seem quite real.

“What’s up?” one of us asked.

“Challenger,” he said, “it just exploded.”

I don’t think the words registered at first. I know I remember not having any idea what he was talking about — for all the hype about the Teacher in Space launch, I had been completely unaware that the launch was to be that morning.

“The Shuttle…Challenger…it just blew up. Didn’t you hear about it?”

Now that we knew what he meant, of course we didn’t believe him. Shuttles didn’t “blow up”, after all. There had been no announcement from the principal. No one else in the cafeteria seemed to be acting as if anything so shocking had happened. We thought he was pulling some sort of prank. But then again…Joe? Joke about something this important to him? What if he was serious…?

He managed to persuade us that he might not be joking. I can’t recall now how he said he had learned about it, but given the time and place (high school, 1986, pre-internet-accessibility, pre-cellphone-ubiquity), it was probably over the radio.

It happened that David, Paul and I had a programming class after lunch, taught by David’s father. I remembered that the computer lab had a television suspended from the ceiling in one corner of the room, and it dawned on me that we might be able to tune in the news on it. David’s father let us in when he heard Joe’s story, and in a few minutes we had the television tuned into the news. I don’t think I quite believed Joe’s story even after I first saw the now-iconic white arcs against the blue sky on the screen, since it wasn’t clear to me yet what I was looking at. But after a few minutes, after the broadcast networks had replayed the video of the explosion several times, it was undeniable that he had been telling the truth all along.

We didn’t even bother with class that day, we simply watched the news coverage throughout fifth period. I don’t remember now what we did in sixth period, if anything, but I am quite sure that the principal never made any announcements about the accident — something that strikes me as odd in hindsight, but then I can’t recall any other major event of that period of the Eighties being announced at school, either…this was one of those rare historical moments that I found out about well before I got home and turned on CNN.

Funny that at the time of the accident, it was only just beginning to dawn on us kids that the promises made for the Shuttle probably weren’t ever going to come to fruition. Spaceflight wasn’t, in fact, safe and routine, and nevermind cheap. The Shuttle was going to launch at something less than a flight a week. It wasn’t going to usher in the age of O’Neill colonies. It probably wasn’t even going to launch from California, given the ongoing problems with the launch site there. If you had told me then that twenty years later I would be working on the replacement for the Shuttle, I wouldn’t have believed it — first, because it would have surprised me that NASA wouldn’t already have developed something new by then, and second, because I was applying to liberal arts programs at the time, having been told by my career counselor at school that I needed to be an “Einstein in math” to be an engineer.

Two and a half years later, Eric, Eric, Mark, Marc, Ken, and I watched the Return to Flight launch live on a TV in the dorms at Michigan State. After a torrent of dark and tasteless jokes, I think we were all relieved that the launch was uneventful. After the launch (and after having learned the previous quarter that math was easy if I actually did the homework), I started to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have been an engineer after all.

The phone rang.

I wasn’t happy at all. I had just arrived in Denver six days earlier, and this Saturday morning was the first opportunity I’d had to sleep in and get adjusted to the altitude and the time difference, and here someone was waking me up at a little after seven-thirty. It was my mother. Newsworthy things (like 9/11) seem to only happen when I am out of town, so I typically ask my parents to call and let me know if something important happens. I had a vague feeling that this must be one of those times.

“Are you watching TV?” she asked.

“No,” I mumbled, still half-asleep. “I was in bed. You know what time it is out here, right?”

“Well, you might want to turn it on.”

“What,” I asked, sure now that this was one of those ‘something newsworthy’ calls, “did they start the war?”

“No — the Space Shuttle blew up again.”

“Ahh, crap.”

I hung up with a promise to call her later, after finding out what had happened. I had an ominous feeling this time around, the nagging suspicion that I knew something about what had gone wrong. There was all that talk at Michoud last week…about the ET…something about the foam?

Luckily I had bought a small TV a couple of days earlier, so that I could watch the news concerning the approaching war. Sure enough, there on the screen was a unique yet eerily familiar set of debris contrails against a blue sky. This being 2003, however, I fired up the PC in between cellphone calls from and to friends, and started blogging.

And the next day, I elected to take down the handful of posts concerning what I knew of the foam and what I had gleaned from hallway conversations the week before (posts I could kick myself now for not having saved somewhere). Speculations on just how much foam had been shed from the bipod, whether the environment-related blowing agent change might have played a role in the foam coming loose, the sense from ET engineers tasked to perform a quick analysis that the Shuttle program wasn’t overly concerned with the observed foam shedding at the time, annoyance that NASA treated popcorning and other foam events as maintenance issues and had little interest in actually solving the root problem to save the money and time spent fixing tiles, etc. No one forced me to take down those posts, but my boss was happy that I had done so since by Monday morning we were under orders not to discuss the accident in public forums or with reporters who might call or “ambush” us.

Michoud was a busier-than-usual place by the time I got back from Denver in mid-May. All the parking spots within fifty yards of the building were now reserved for NASA people, where one used to be hard pressed to find the resident NASA representatives anywhere on site (excluding Jerry Smelser, who had an unnerving habit of popping out from behind hardware for an impromptu meet-and-greet with random employees when nobody in management even knew he was at the facility). They had actually hired a few new employees as staffing-up began for Return to Flight. And work was beginning on an effort to convert ET engineering from CADDS5 raster-scans to actual 3D models in CATIA to support RTF flight analyses (an upgrade that should have been done years earlier, in my opinion). I think the tanks on-site were still under guard at that time.

If you had told me then that five years later I would be working on the replacement for the Shuttle, and that it would be a capsule, and that it would be riding on a rehashed SRB, I wouldn’t have believed it. But then, it’s not like I’m all that great at predicting the future.

1 comment to Challenger | Columbia

  • Aaron_J

    If you don’t delete this post I expect that some day you’ll have the chance to add a third column. If you don’t have the chance to do so, I hope that it’s because the next generation is that much safer, and not because we gave up on our manned space program.