Well, sometimes history lessons involve events that are extremely well-known to us. Today’s History Lesson is one of those topics. I get a lot of my ideas from the books I’ve read, but this one I can pretty much do from memory.
I clearly remember the excitement we had as kids when NASA launched its first Space Shuttle mission. At school, we sat in our desks and Mrs. Crooks, my 5th-grade teacher, rolled in one of the 3-shelved carts with the TV on it, and we watched in rapt attention as the Columbia, the coolest vehicle ever, was hurtled into space. As a car nut, I observed that the Shuttle Orbiter was slower than a Porsche 911 from 0-to-60mph (the Shuttle took more than 6 seconds), but it really smoked at full chat, reaching more than 17,000mph…way faster than even Bugatti’s awesome Veyron.
We also watched it land a couple days later and it was a really big deal. Flying into space and coming back in a reusable vehicle was revolutionary. Over the years, Shuttle launches became more regular, to the point where the news just mentioned them and maybe showed the liftoff, and we didn’t watch launches or landings in school anymore.
But I suppose, like life in general, the “mundane” Space Shuttle missions didn’t stay that way for long. On Janauary 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger’s solid rocket booster exploded just 73 seconds into the flight. The cataclysmic blast blew the Challenger apart, killing all 7 occupants. What’s worse, because school-teacher Christa McAuliffe was one of the passengers, this mission received the same kind of attention and press coverage that those first missions did.
So lots of people saw the start, and the horrible end, of this mission. I was a junior in high school at the time and we didn’t watch it, but I still recall vividly when heard about it. I was sitting in the school’s 3rd-floor computer room at 11:35am (CST…roughly one hour after the explosion) when someone came in told us. I don’t remember what I thought…just looking at the clock that seeing 11:35am.
It turns out that a cold-weather launch was the primary cause of the disaster. Some O-ring seals didn’t function properly in cold weather, and they failed during the high stress of launch. That led to a fuel leak in the booster and, with all that pressure and all that fuel so close to all that flame, potential catastrophe became reality.
The warm words of tribute given by President Ronald Reagan that night stood in stark contrast to the events of that cold January morning, when ever-present human error, once again, tragically mixed with the fragility of human life.