The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster: an anthology of reflections and perspectives

Today marks the 32nd anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and its seven-astronaut crew. On January 28, 1986, the craft was ripped apart 73 seconds after it lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. All seven astronauts on board lost their lives, probably when the still-intact and depressurized crew cabin crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time, two-thirds of a lifetime ago, I was a sophomore at Concord High School, where Christa McAuliffe taught social studies. I was also a lifelong aficionado of astronomy and the space program, and was surely between girlfriends. As a result, I formed a lot of memories of this event and its aftermath – in terms of both the Concord community and NASA – in the days, weeks, months, and years that followed.

In 2007, I expanded on these memories in a series of five posts on the Chimp Refuge, then housed at ScienceBlogs.com; one year later I underwent a surprising experience related to the disaster, leading me to write another post. Links to all six of these entries are below, but — not to sound too much like a K-Tel record ad from the 1970s — I have collected all of them into this post. That’s right, for the first time, you can get all of these amazing hits in one place!

I have monkeyed with this migrating content so many times over the years that I am not confident of how many of the links, internal and otherwise, might be dead. But technical perfection is not the goal here, which may strike alert readers as sadly ironic. 

I. Into the distance, a ribbon of black

A skinny blond teen and two of his friends, a roving snapshot of 1980s Americana, shuck and jive into the bland fluorescence of their school’s cafeteria on an almost-mild midwinter morning. It is institutional off-white and nondescript — except for today. It smells of salt and grease and energy and noise — especially today.

The boys manifest the twerpishly confident manner pathognomonic of half-aware adolescent males, and when they spot the television they wander across the crowded room in search of a better vantage point. The insistence of the occasion fails to diminish the semidiscordant babble of two hundred bustling bags of hormones, but all eyes are trained on the screen. Few will say it, but this is their day; their school’s moment not only in but toward the sun. “Tide Pride” carries the ring of genuine meaning.

The face of a classmate, one of the lucky ones actually in Florida, winks across the screen. She is unaware of being in the camera’s lens because her eyes, aided by binoculars, are trained on the cold clear horizon. A collective hoot erupts among her schoolbound peers.

The moment is finally at hand. It has been long in coming after several frustrating but necessary delays: too cold. The scientists are tip-top and prideful and would no more capriciously reschedule this event than would the school’s fifteen hundred students and faculty cancel it. Yes, and faculty: for once teachers and students are aligned on parallel axes, unified in their anticipation of the greatest earthly (so to speak) undertaking ever to sweep through their mutual corridors and classrooms.

Ice is forming on the tips of my wings

Unheeded warnings, I thought I thought of everything

The students quiet themselves just enough to gather intelligence from onscreen and initiate a counting down from ten at the proper time. But this interlude is brief and when the triumphant if unheard roar of two impossibly powerful engines — gobbling up dangerously volatile but necessarily lightweight hydrogen — sends the space shuttle Challenger toward an unprecedented destiny, a chorus of cheers echoes throughout a room transformed. It is 11:37 a.m.

A minute into the launch, the level of chatter in the room has already ebbed toward near-standard lunchtime levels, and a few students are no longer glued to the screen at all. With the Challenger well clear of the launch pad, the worrisome and exciting part is over; all that remains is lots of footage of interesting if arcane experiments to be broadcast from outer space in the days to come.

At T plus 1:13, there is a flash on the screen; the blond youth does not move but his heart yields a burp. Twin plumes of smoke appear on either side of the soaring spacecraft, forming a curly-Y-shaped cloud of exhaust and post-traumatic effluvia that will later become blackly emblematic of the day’s incalculable, lethal boondoggle.

Above the planet on a wing and a prayer

A vapor trail in the empty air

NASA photo

A gasp thrums through the room, a synchronous surge of toxic adrenalin that vice-grips the kid’s chest just so, as in the instant after a stumble preceding a sure headlong fall. But then it is over.

The boosters, he thinks confidently. He has always loved astronomy and is something of an authority on the space program, he reckons, and this is what is supposed to happen as the shuttle zings toward the troposphere. They just dropped the fuel boosters. He figures his less-informed mates have intuited more or less the same thing.

He wanders into the food-service area. From the dairy cooler he selects an eight-ounce carton of Hood chocolate milk. A girl he does not know from the senior class is the only other student gathering victuals. And then one of the women behind the counter, short, fiftyish, aproned and hairnetted, begins speaking in a parrotlike squawk. THEY’RE SAYING THAT THING BLEW UP OVER THE DAMN WATER she declares, her face twisted into an almost parodic rictus of agitation. She was the Lunch Lady, all right.

The kid doesn’t believe her. She was, after all, the Lunch Lady, not the Launch Lady. How she came by her information he will never learn; she cannot see the television and no one can yet hear it. Perhaps she had a radio in the kitchen.

And then a huge cry of “QUIET!” — a male teacher is clearly its source — hammers through the shrill and panicky air. The kid replaces the carton of milk and gives the girl beside him a vacant yet purposeful glance and as he shuffles back toward his fellows, there is dead quiet in the cafeteria and only the television can now be heard.

The kid rejoins his friends as he focuses his disbelieving attention on the incantations of whoever is leading the broadcast. In a moment both his denial and his understanding are utterly complete. He swivels his head to say something to his friends (in a whisper; it is still preternaturally silent) and his words freeze on his palate as he sees their mouths hanging open and their eyes glazing over with terrible wonder.

And he realizes he looks just the same way.

The president of the senior class, wearing a party-favor hat and holding a kazoo, stands apart at the back of the room, looking perversely beatific as her face goes nineteen shades of slack. In hindsight her choice of accouterments is perfectly macabre and footage of her standing alone and defeated is later one of the prime shots fed by network television to all of America.

Because they all know. He knows and everyone in other corners of the school and the city and the nation and the world know that Concord High School social studies teacher S. Christa McAuliffe, tabbed to become the first teacher in space, will never make that journey or any other except down, down.

Then someone finally looses a tortured wail and the yammering starts and people are heading for the exits and what follows is a scene the kid at some level knows will never be replicated in his lifetime, not for him. Members of the major television networks, gathered in anticipation of what is ostensibly the greatest day in the school’s history, are suddenly charged with covering its darkest and they go at it like smiling piranhas, cornering gibbering students alone and in groups only to be warded off by teachers, some crying, with near-violent hysteria.

No one is running; this is not a theatrical panic scene or a nightclub conflagration. It is a sort of muted subatomic pandemonium that knocks every student, teacher, administrator on their backs with little fanfare. In short, no one, from the principal to the custodial staff, knows whether to shit or go blind. Instead, everyone shuffles around almost at random, muttering wide-eyed to anyone in reach: “Do you believe this? Do you f*cking believe this?” Those who doubt the perhaps overused description “zombie-like” as applied to human constructs were not in Concord High at midday on January 28th, 1986.

But there was no doubt about it. The Challenger, and with it the lives of seven astronauts, had been lost.

A soul in tension that’s learning to fly

Condition grounded but determined to try

Can’t keep my mind from the circling sky

Tongue-tied and twisted, just an Earth-bound misfit, I.

II. “A major malfunction” turns 21

As I hinted strongly, I was then a student at Concord High School, where one of the crew members, Christa McAuliffe, was a teacher.

The destruction of the shuttle and the surrounding events consume a much larger fraction of my memory that I could have anticipated, and I was similarly unaware at the degree of emotion I would find wrapped in both the moments following the explosion and the pertinent islands of experience in the months and years thereafter. If the output includes mawkish essays like yesterday’s — which I wrote almost a year ago; Pink Floyd did not release A Momentary Lapse of Reason until 1987 — I can live with this.

Despite being a sophomore at CHS at the time, if I felt especially tied to the disaster and the drama both attending and preceding it, this was owed less to the whims of geography than to my childhood and adolescent interests. I’d been an astronomy fan since I was about 10, with my interest probably peaking at around age 12 or 13. I was only kid, and maybe the only person, in my circle of acquaintances to whom the sequence of letters O B A F G K M bore meaning. My favorite part of semi-regular trips to the Boston Museum of Science were all about the show in the Hayden Planetarium that most people slept through while I secretly danced and the did the wave. I still consider Cosmos the most incredibly informative and moving program I have ever watched on television (and one of the best books, with certainly the sublimest art of any science publication anywhere); Carl Sagan was my Reggie Jackson, the Voyager I and II missions my ongoing World Series. As a sixth-grader I was one of a five or six students in some extracurricular start-up program for astronomy nerds at Broken Ground School, and this led me to my first with a telescope of any consequence – the observatory at St. Paul’s School in Concord. (SPS is a prestigious prep school withan operating budget roughly equal to that of Mississippi; a few years ago, eyebrows were raised when the annual compensation of its rector was listed at close to $600,000, but its grounds were nice to have around when I was young.)

I had a detailed poster of the vehicle formally known as the Space Transportation System on my bedroom wall that was produced well before the first shuttle was launched or even built (it just kind of “showed up” one day; a theme of my childhood was my parents’ remarkable ability to make perfectly inspiring brain fodder “show up”).

I owned a Lego version of the prototype. I remember watching footage of the Enterprise (a test-only model) carried across the continental U.S. on the back of a 747, and being perversely excited that the much-smaller Space Shuttle would soon be doing things its formidable but staid Boeing cousin never could. This was at about the time Skylab was returning to Earth in hot bits and pieces and killing cows in Australia; I’d read all about the Apollo missions, which became an addition to human history at the same time I did, and was jazzed for (hu)manned space flight to get rolling again.

I never had Christa as a teacher. After being selected by NASA for the program in the summer of 1985, she went on a leave of absence to train. I knew her from assemblies, from talk shows, from the indulgent words of my own teachers. There was a yellowed road-race result with her name on it in my bedroom desk drawer: the Concord Five-Miler, sometime in the early 1980s, before I started running myself. I collected such things, which the Internet has rendered both obsolete and more valuable, with the obsessive fervor of anyone struck by honest passion amid the clamor of adolescence. I ran, I loved it. So did others. So did this astronaut-to-be…

I’ve already painted a picture of what that morning was like at Concord High. By the time the morning of January 28 dawned bright and clear and more than unusually cold in the U.S. Southeast — only now do I recognize how wacky it really is for the temperature to dip below freezing on the Florida coast — the shuttle launch had already been rescheduled twice owing to cold weather. Impatient teens as so many of us were, we’d come to figure we’d be lucky to see the thing go up before our winter break. I remember thinking that if my mother’s Toyota could run in subzero conditions, a multi-gazillion-dollar NASA commodity sure as hell ought to remain viable even if there was a nip in the air.

That morning, there were reporters from the major networks (at the time, there were only three) seeded throughout the school, interviewing kids and taking stock of what it all meant to the self-identity of a community that only a couple months earlier had seen a quiet, nondescript kid named Louis Cartier shot dead by the police outside the administrative offices after arriving that morning with a shotgun, taking a hostage and apparently vowing to put a load of buckshot in a stereotypical tormentor-bully on the football team. So when the day turned into something between a bad action movie and a Picasso painting, journalism at its hungriest was poised to throw down. And we all watched that night: The mass-televised image of a disbelieving and dejected Carina Dolcino standing at the back of a school cafeteria remained iconic two decades later. The unfailingly chirpy senior-class president had, however unwittingly, adorned herself with balloons and party favors in welcoming the blackest moment in Concord High School history, and in its annual coverage of the disaster, the newsies make sure we never forget it.

We were quickly dismissed from school — the principal, Charles Foley, did not announce when school would resume; this would be six days later — with all of us carried off by waiting cars and buses within, I would say, 90 minutes of the time what was left of the Challenger began sinking below the surface of the ocean.

I spent the afternoon as I probably would have given a surprise early furlough: racing my neighborhood buds up and down Mountain Road on skateboards, playing Nerf basketball in someone’s basement. There were no guidelines as to what anyone should think, say or feel, and no one seemed eager to produce any.

So we just lived; and waited. For the smoke, the skies beyond, and our hearts and minds to clear.

It would be some time.

III. Life in a Northern Town

When we returned to school six days after Challenger rose and fell, it was not business as usual. One of the first things that happened was that the school enlisted, or perhaps ceded to the solicitations of, a team or teams of psychologists. Students were, at random, debriefed about their experiences before and after January 28. I was one of them. Had I had nightmares? Had I “pooped” my pants? Had trouble paying attention? Yada, yada. The results were probably published somewhere; I’ve never looked.

Before the launch, an senior and budding videographer (and standout pole-vaulter, if you must know) named Mark Alosa traveled around Concord filming various winter scenes raging from a snowstorm filmed at a gas station to people skating and sledding at White Park – footage that would be blended with launch and mission video to create a tribute to the entire affair, one with a hodgepodge of local flavors targeting the spirits of Christa and Concordians in general. Alosa chose a nondescript song by The Dream Academy, “Life in a Northern Town,” as the de facto theme song.

In a school assembly about a month after the disaster, the “final” video – conspicuously omitting anything from January 28, of course – was shown, and the Challenger events became bundled together with the aforementioned song immediately and forever, imprinted on my mind as a symbolic unit. Last year I was getting gas late one night at a BP station near Fort Lauderdale when I heard “Lights in a Northern Town” emanating from the speakers, and I half-expected the appearance of snow, the trail of a deadly light-and-smoke stream cleaving the sky.

At the same assembly, a female student, I believe Michelle Plourde, sang an a capella version of “The Rose,” the haunting ballad made popular by Bette Midler in a 1980 movie of the same name. This is a song that could crumble an audience at a World Wrestling Federation event. Here, it was devastating.

At the statewide indoor track and field championship meet the weekend after the tragedy, many of my friends wore black patches sewn on their singlets. I had broken my foot in November playing backyard basketball, or something like it, and missed the indoor competitive season while dodging snowbanks in a flexible flyer while wearing a walking cast. I had come to terms with this – but now missed running more than ever.

Believed to be the only surviving photo of Kevin Beck (R) from his sophomore year.

It wasn’t long before the “Crispa” jokes and many like it began making the rounds: What’s the last thing Christa McAluliffe said to her husband? You feed the dog, I’ll feed the fish! As lowly as the circulation of these seemed, we at CHS grasped that we could not simply demand to be quarantined from the bad taste of the rest of the country. Certainly this particular show had moved along a countless number of feet, ever since black humor first lined up alongside decor for the race of a lifetime.

Later in the year, other details emerged, including the filing of a $1 billion lawsuit by the widow of Challenger captain Michael Smith. Things like this came and went, and soon enough life was just like it had been. Almost.

A former Concord Monitor reporter named Bob Hohler, who sometimes wrote about out cross-country team (and decades later covered the Red Sox for the Boston Globe), wrote a biography, I Touch the Future, that he had begin work on was published in the fall. I and many others received it that year as a Christmas gift.

During a track practice in the spring of 1988, as I accompanied a group of teammates up Rumford Street, I realized I had never seen Christa’s grave, located somewhere in the mammoth expanse of Blossom Hill Cemetery. None of the other kids present had either. I decided it would be an interesting idea to start a pool: Everyone chip in a dollar (participation was mandatory), and the first one to physically tough the gravestone would collect to loot. I outsprinted a kid who would later become a college roommate, Chip DeAngelis, for the dubious honor of winning. We started at each other and the heavily decorated site as others caught up and began gathering around and doing the same thing. Without a word, the whole Vegas angle was scrapped.

In June, 1990, the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium, built near the grounds of New Hampshire Technical Institute north of downtown, was opened. Equal parts memorial and information center and visible from Interstate 93, it is the most prominent reminder to longtime residents of a person who was, perhaps more than any other, the source of both a lifetime of raised hopes and a fiery blast of sullied dreams.

I moved to Roanoke, Virginia in 2002. I soon noticed that a section of Route 460 northeast of the city, near Botetourt County line, was named Challenger Avenue. It seemed self-evident that the road had been renamed in honor of the doomed NASA mission, a suspicion I confirmed with a cousin who had lived there all this life. Every single time I have run past a sign with that name on it, I have thought of the eponymous spacecraft. It never quite ends.

IV. STS-51-L: what went wrong

About eight hours after Challenger and its crew were lost, President Reagan addressed the nation on television; by a quirk of circumstance, a State of the Union address had been scheduled for January 28 well before the shuttle launch was delayed to this date. Reagan’s emoting about the fallen astronauts, for once, didn’t look glib or forced, yet I still thought with a trace of guilt that he nevertheless looked like something of a bumbling ass, prating on about American glory when this was theoretically the furthest thing from the minds of citizens of all of Planet Earth. 20 years later I would come to understand that this sort of mien, an apple-shining grin underlain by a trace of wanting to just get back to the damned ballgame, is perhaps obligatory in order to maintain a proper presidential bearing.

In the weeks following the disaster, when the extended Concord High School community became as morbidly and righteously — if not quite as dispassionately — drawn to the whys and the hows of the disaster as everyone else, it became obvious that the decision to launch the Shuttle in freezing conditions had been a lethal miscalculation.

Rapidly materializing in the relentless scope of public accusation and blame was Morton-Thiokol International (now ATK Launch Systems), the manufacturer of the infamous O-ring that became virtually synonymous with the corporate name. Despite hearing the term too many times to count in the aftermath of the explosion, few people I knew bothered to learn what an “O-Ring” actually was or what it was for, despite its being as simple a thing as it sounds.

In those days, the Concord Monitor was an afternoon newspaper, and the headline on January 28, 1986, succinct, aghast and in a Times-style font, stretched entirely across the width of the page: “Shuttle Explodes.” Although no one was rushing to point such things out at the time, this is technically incorrect. From a physical standpoint, the rapid chain of events — the rupture of a seal in Challenger’s right solid rocket booster (SRB), severe damage to its external fuel tank as a result of exposure to flames from the booster, and the consequent disintegration of the orbiter itself — are well understood.

In the hours before the launch, engineers from both NASA and Morton-Thiokol expressed concern about the cold-weather performance of the booster O-rings, arguing that it might not do its job below roughly 53 degrees Fahrenheit and could therefore allow fuel to escape. The low temperature at Cape Canaveral on the early morning of the 28th was about 30 degrees. When the O-ring failed, effectively shredding the spaceship and killing seven astronauts, it was exactly what engineers had warned could happen. In addition, engineers at Rockwell International, the civilian contractor responsible for most of the Shuttle’s construction, warned that chunks of ice that had accumulated on the launch “pad” itself could cause problems during lift-off, either structurally or as a result of being sucked into the engines (as in a classic airplane bird strike). In the end, these various admonitions were disregarded by both NASA and Morton Thiokol managers, and the launch was initiated in late morning.

Here, diagrammatically, is what the shuttle system consists of: orbiter, two SRBs and an external fuel tank.

The shuttle is powered by a triad of engines which generate approximately 400,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. Each solid rocket booster, meanwhile, produces 3.3 million pounds of thrust on the launch pad, making it the most powerful rocket in the history of human aerospace engineering; its chief fuel is aluminum. These are shed at about two minutes into a shuttle flight (partially explaining why I and others confused the vehicle breakup with a normal event). The external tank contains a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that weighs almost twenty tons at launch. The boosters are re-usable, but the external tank — dropped from the shuttle moments after the engines are shut down — is not.

Hydrogen and oxygen are simple, lightweight elements, unlike the mixtures of long, unbranched hydrocarbons most commonly used to move civilians around in workaday motorcraft. If the shuttle used a conventional fuel, an age-old problem in rocket propulsion would arise: The weight of the fuel alone would be prohibitive in creating sufficient thrust to allow the orbiter, its payload, and the fuel and fuel tanks themselves to escape Earth’s gravitational clutches. But hydrogen, though it must be cooled to about -250 C to be converted to a liquid, has only about 1/14 the density of water. Its use in rocketry is indispensable.

Overnight, at least one O-ring had not re-expanded completely after contracting in the cold and becoming brittle — this is basic materials science, folks. Although it was not evident at the time, the actual failure of this ring occurred at ignition, toward the back of the right SRB. At this point, oxides produced from the combustion of propellant acted to temporarily seal a gap that otherwise would have allowed the unchecked escape of the extremely volatile booster contents. But as the shuttle rose and picked up speed, the stopgap plug could no longer withstand the shear forces exerted by atmospheric components, even five, six and finally eight miles above the earth.

About 58 seconds into the flight, a burst of flame shot out of the SRB (image). The shuttle continued on for another 10-12 seconds, during which time the flame burned a hole in the external tank. At T + 73 seconds, the tank failed and began to disintegrate; in short order, the beleaguered orbiter, tossed into an unanticipated flight pattern, was blown apart by forces far in excess of those it was built to withstand. The crew members probably lived until the crew cabin, designed generally in the manner of a NASACR driver cage in that it was in some ways a sturdier kernel than the shell of orbiter around it, smashed into the ocean at over 200 miles per hour. They may have been unconscious when the cabin hit the water owing to depressurization in the moments after the structure came apart, but given that three of the four “emergency response packs” in the cabin were found to have been deployed, it is virtually certain that — apocalyptic plumes of smoke notwithstanding — the sudden loss of integrity did not kill the astronauts outright.

The Challenger disaster put the shuttle program on ice for almost three years, and thanks mainly to human factors, a mishap of its magnitude may have been inevitable. The shuttle was never built to allow for a reasonable chance of escape by astronauts in the event of a catastrophe, with the apparent, overconfident aim being to avoid such unsavory things in the first place; yet NASA, as I’ll discuss in the next and final post in this burst of shuttle-related logorrhea, has never taken every step to minimize the chances of such a catastrophe. Taken together, and in the wake of the less-celebrated but equally tragic Columbia explosion of 2003, these factors have spelled the end of the Space Shuttle program, which saw its final launch in July 2011 (Atlantis, STS-135) and will, if all goes as planned, be superseded by the Orion Space Vehicle.

V. The galactic price of organizational arrogance

Naturally, after the Challenger was alleged to have been torn asunder for want of something as simple as a piece of rubber, people wanted answers. The Rogers Commission, a panel of politicians, military officers, astronauts and scientists appointed by President Reagan to investigate the disaster, eventually produced a 225-page report detailing evidence not only that O-ring failure was an extremely high-risk scenario in freezing temperatures, but that NASA officials acted in opposition to the advice of engineers and launched the shuttle amid a cloud of known dangers basically out of impatience. (I think about this every time I’m seated on a grounded airplane listening to my fellow passengers groaning about “stupid” ice and weather delays, as if human deadlines trump physics and an increased probability of crashing is a petty inconvenience compared to the huge threat of, say, catching cancer from genetically modified yam.)

This was not a matter of hindsight being perfect as usual. It was not a head-scratcher. Morton Thiokol engineers explained what was likely to happen, and their expertise was disregarded for the sake of political expediency. I’m glad to report that this no longer happens and that the public has been encouraged by subsequent administrations to regard scientists as leading sources of expertise in their fields, second only to corporate CEOs, senators from Oklahoma, and psychics.

Renowned physicist (and prankster) Richard Feynman‘s opinions differed markedly from those of his dozen or so peers on the Rogers Commission in the degree to which they maligned NASA management’s decision-making, technical competence, and more or less everything else of relevance. The normally sober Feynman was so appalled by the arrant ignorance he discovered (for example, the labeling of an O-ring that had split 1/3 of the way through its diameter in tests with a “safety factor” of 3; the straight-from-someone’s-ass estimate of only a 10-in-a-million chance of catastrophic shuttle failure of any origin) that he dedicated much of one of his normally jaunty books to his Rogers Commission experience. The conclusion of this his Rogers Report findings — added as an appendix to the Report after some controversy – appears below, but read the document in its entirety; considering what was at stake and the presumed wisdom of those handling the stakes, the managerial incompetence at NASA – which was not an event but a bona fide culture – was shocking.

“[E]ngineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle …Official management claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less [than engineers’ estimates]. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers … this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risk than NASA management would have us believe? Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them…For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

But human beings can, and the more politicized an organization with NASA’s aims and profile becomes, the less able it is to achieve its vision. In 2006, George Deutsch was busy as a bee in his role as Bush-appointed NASA propagandist, spreading an impressive range of lies about the scientific consensus on cosmology, global warming, and other matters. Deutsch was notoriously involved in curbing the efforts of longtime NASA climate scientist James Hansen and ordering portions of the governmental Web site so as to introduce muddying language suggesting about the Big Bang, climate change and so on. As it turned out, Deutsch lied about graduating from Texas A&M University and resigned from his post last February. Nick expresses amazement that someone like Deutsch could waltz into a position theoretically demanding an extensive background check without even having a college degree. At one time I might also have found this odd.

If there is one government organization in the world that desperately needs to maintain its public image, to create and nurture an honest and informing rapport with a public that is mildly titillated by close-up shots of Mons Olympus or photos of Saturn’s rings from within but sees few tangible benefits in spending billions of dollars on what appear to be toys that aren’t even useful in war, it is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It is imperative to translate the wonder in all of us — the kind of innate thrill tied to all of our hearts and transcending otherwise insuperable differences between creationists and life scientists, biomedical researchers and hard-line opponents of embryo tinkering, even Muslims and Jews – into understanding and hope, into a global confidence that betterments to a humble and increasingly fragile Earth ecology can be found through dedicated and focused endeavors and expenditures in places we have been fortunate to graze, if that.

It may have been coincidence, or perhaps it was a natural by-product of a more generalized shying away from the heavens on the part of America as a whole, but after 1986 I lost interest in astronomy. I took astrophysics as a college student, and was fascinated, but for whatever reasons — and they were probably benign enough — I haven’t been quite as captivated as before.

As I said, I don’t follow this spacey stuff with such untrammeled intrigue anymore. But at least once a year, it becomes hard to forget. And because of what and whom is remembered, it becomes equally hard not to idealize.

Christa was 37 when she died, not old for a teacher, but old enough to me at the time; my mother was born less than a year before Christa was. Suddenly I was 37 one day, and now that day is comfortably in the past. I may have done the unthinkable and caught up in years, but only now can I appreciate how much Christa McAuliffe did in human terms. There still exist those, with or without having known her, who partake of her unvarnished optimism. It’s a place to start.

VI. Reflecting on a retrospective–with a jolt

When it comes to unknowingly beating long odds, what happened tonight is as freakish as it gets for me.

As many have probably seen or heard already today, the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost in the worst space disaster in human history on this date in 1986.

Some of you may have been taking in the Refuge for long enough to remember my series of posts about this event one year ago, where I remarked on having been an astronomy and space-program buff as a sophomore at Concord (New Hampshire) High School, where Christa McAuliffe — chosen to be the first civilian in space — was one of the seven astronauts killed. What I envisioned late last January as a couple of lengthy posts about the Challenger from both scientific and personal perspectives rapidly expanded into a colossal multi-day wordburst that I have to say I was pleased with, even if this nominal series didn’t seem to garner much attention from the regulars. It didn’t need to; it served its purpose for me and a few of my longtime friends — and, I think, for this blog — well.

These days I keep another blog (really more of a verbal and audiovisual sump) where I’m in the process of, among other mindless things, counting down a list of my favorite fifty songs of all time that I made around New Year’s Day; I write a little bit about each song and the artist(s) who performed it and embed YouTube videos wherever possible. The list might have been a lot different if I’d made it a two years, two months, or two weeks earlier or later than I did, but it is what it now is, and I found myself about to post #24 earlier this evening when I got a phone call.

In the course of this conversation with a fellow thirtysomething, the topic of eighties music and guilty pleasures came up, and I found myself detailing why it was that a certain 1985 song by an obscure group called Dream Academy was significant to me. This, I explained, was the school’s de facto theme song for what was to be a wonderful, high-profile, and memorable event (two out of three is, in this case, very bad), with a couple of video-camera-wielding CHS seniors incorporating the song into a short film they made by driving around our city of 40,000 people and filming its significant landmarks, its everyday life, and its rather sterile yet warm northern New England flavor.

It is by sheer happenstance that a song by a little-known band that attracted few accolades wound up exactly where it did on my all-time list. It is an utter coincidence that on the sump-blog I mentioned, I reached #24 in my personal countdown from #50 today, January 28. And it is completely by chance that I found myself discussing the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger with mny friend earlier, because — and what can I say? — I started doing so before I even remembered that today was January 28. I was rattling off the date and time of the shuttle’s disintegration into my cell phone and had to stop as if smacked over the head with an O-ring when I realized what happening — what I was saying and when I was.

For anyone who’s interested, that flurry of Chimp Refuge posts I wrote about the disaster and surrounding events last year that I am very proud of, or something, began with this one (there are five in all). The name of the song is “Life in a Northern Town.” I can’t listen to it without spooling up my own now-antique mental film of too many things to revisit again, and that’s just always how it’s going to be.

Weird. But somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get through a January 28 without a reminder, however unprepared for it I may be. At least I hope not.

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