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The Challenger Disaster and the Spirit of Space Exploration

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Twenty-five years ago today the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The dead crew included the much-publicized first ordinary citizen to be sent into space, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

I’ll never forget the date, because it was my birthday. But I’ll never forget the event for much bigger reasons. The Challenger disaster seemed to signify more than the fallibility of NASA and its technology. It seemed to crystallize a feeling that had been settling over us for years: that the best days of the U.S. space program were in the past.

Nothing has happened since then to change that impression. The shuttle program felt unambitious from the start, since it wasn’t really taking us anywhere we hadn’t already gone. Also, by 1986 it had become in one sense a victim of its own success—half a dozen successful launches had begun to make space flight seem routine.

It was a far cry from the days of Apollo, when they’d pull us out of our elementary school classes to watch the moon missions on live TV. There we’d be, the whole school massed in the auditorium, squinting from afar at a single black-and-white television set that had been creakily wheeled onto the stage. Apollo was more important than class. It was about how great our country was; even more, it was about the limitless prospects for mankind itself.

The shuttle program could never generate that level of excitement, and while neither the Challenger disaster nor the loss of the Columbia and its crew 17 years later could kill the program, old age has now done so: 2011 is expected to be its retirement year. After that, what? Will the ambitious space programs of nations new to space flight pick up where we and the Russians left off? Will private enterprise do it?

Or will the grandeur of space flight fade into myth and metaphor? President Obama referred to “our generation’s Sputnik moment” in his State of the Union address this week. He was talking about investment in research and development—in areas like clean energy and biomedicine and information technology. Not space.

Is continued exploration of the solar system simply beyond our collective powers of focus and imagination? With earthbound disasters—natural and man-made and hybrid—striking on an almost daily basis, is there any hope that humanity will ever find the time, the money, and the spirit to reach for Mars and beyond? If saving our own planet from ourselves seems beyond our political will, how can we resume a push to worlds beyond?

It’s sobering to think that a small boy who watched the moon landings might live out a full life and finally die of old age without ever seeing that kind of exploratory spirit return.

Challenger photo: Bruce Weaver/AP Photo

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • duane

    It should be clear that the manned space program is intended to generate enthusiasm among the taxpaying public. Beyond that, it does not have a well-defined mission. We went to the Moon not to explore the Moon but to show up the Soviets. There is no particular scientific or economic reason to send humans to the Moon — no reason that would justify the cost and effort. Even less reason to go to Mars. If anyone could make a compelling case as to why we need to send humans to Mars, we could do it, given the funding.

    And let’s not forget that the Moon program was also marred by deaths, and most everyone knows the Apollo 13 story. Failures shouldn’t be dismissed as “fallibility” but as a recognition that it’s VERY difficult. Failures happen when you’re working out on the edge.

    The unmanned space program, where actual science gets done, lives off the table scraps of the manned program. The unmanned space program has been a stunning success, although the occasional failure grabs headlines. The scientific wealth of knowledge that has come from the unmanned mission is simultaneously staggering and of little interest to the taxpayer.

    It’s true, the near future doesn’t look great. But I have to disagree with your contention that the end of the Apollo era ended our best days in space. Sadly, scientific progress doesn’t generate excitement among 95% of Americans.

  • Jon Sobel

    Duane, thanks for your well-considered comment. I fully agree that great science comes out of unmanned missions. But there’s a reason the manned program is what captures the public imagination: human nature. If we’re not putting ourselves out there – in harm’s way, and “where no one has gone before” – it just doesn’t feel the same.

    Also, while it may be true that the manned program “does not have a well-defined mission,” that could change if we keep rendering our planet more and more uninhabitable!

  • Dr Dreadful

    Good post as usual, Duane, but I have to disagree with you on one point. There is an economically compelling case for sending humans to various other lumps of rock (and when I say sending them I mean it in the sense of not bringing the buggers back again), and that is that it would be a really, really good idea to get the hell off the planet and start doing it pretty sharpish.

    It is, however, a highly unpleasant case, so nobody wants to hear it.

  • duane

    Hello, gents. Jon and Dr. D. touch on the habitability of Earth, what with dwindling resources and the possibility of various types of wipeout scenarios.

    So, we need an off-Earth colony. Sure. Where? When? How? I would be interested in your ideas.

  • Jon Sobel

    I think we’d have to start by building enclosed environments on the surface of other worlds which have (at the very least) water. The Moon would be by far the easiest in terms of getting there, but Mars and various asteroids might be candidates as well. The biggest challenge would be to make these colonies ultimately self-sustaining.

    Then there’s also the Rendezvous with Rama method of creating huge spaceships big enough to support lots and lots of people on an indefinite voyage…

  • Dr Dreadful

    In my opinion, we need to get away from the Columbian/Apollo idea of explorers boldly going, etc, and then returning home in triumph.

    The model I’m thinking of is analogous to the 17th century Puritan migrations to North America. Most of the emigrants left Europe without any intention of ever returning.

    On the minus side, they had very little idea of whether they would find anything habitable once they got there, but on the plus side (and this, in the case of spaceflight, is an extra-double-big plus with knobs on) a one-way ticket was a heck of a lot cheaper than a return.

    It needn’t be a death sentence. Mars, in particular, is a roughly Earth-like environment (an atmosphere, abundant water, a relatively benign climate, almost the same length of day), and we could probably cope there with adaptations of existing technology.

    Once established, settlers in the New England colonies often sent for their wives and families to join them. Very occasionally, a few of them went back to England.

    No reason why future Martians couldn’t have a view to that same sort of future, once their colony is up and running.

  • roger nowosielski

    You are a geek, Dreadful, by your own admission, must I remind you?

    Is this the latest in the English/Welsh mind?

  • duane

    Yeah, Dr. D., “once the colony is set up” there are all sorts of possibilities. I don’t see how you would set up a colony. You could have a “station,” where people could work for 6 months, then come home. But no one would actually want to live there. There’s nothing there. It’s a desert that makes the Sahara seem pleasant. The New World, in spite of the tough times the colonists had, was a paradise compared to Mars. There’s a reason that there are no big cities in the Antarctic, which is actually a nicer place than Mars.

    Jon: Rendezvous with Rama. Well, remember, Rama was empty when it was discovered. Whaddaya think happened?

    Just being difficult ….

    And a geek ….

  • Christopher Rose

    Personally, I’m going to feel cheated if I don’t get off this planet before I die.

    Space exploration and colonization is probably one of the top three scientific challenges we face right now and in general terms should have as much resources spent on it as possible.

  • El Bicho

    I got off the planet at a few Grateful Dead shows during the late ’80s/early ’90s

  • Jon Sobel

    Either way it’ll be a long strange trip…

  • Dr Dreadful

    But no one would actually want to live there. There’s nothing there.

    Duane, I have a feeling you’re playing devil’s advocate here, but I’ll bite.

    It takes a particularly odd type of person to want to up sticks and piss off to a new and hostile place, but there are such odd people around.

    Given enough invitation and opportunity, people will move anywhere. Sure, there are no cities in Antarctica… yet. (Hopefully there never will be.) But there are in other inhospitable places. Phoenix, anyone? Las Vegas? New Orleans? Compton?

    And granted that Massachusetts has an atmosphere substantial enough to breathe and warm enough that your eyeballs don’t turn instantaneously into Jawbreakers the moment you step off the Mayflower. But the Puritans were also working with a lot less sophisticated technology.

    remember, Rama was empty when it was discovered.

    Actually, the crew of the Endeavour never proved that definitively…

  • duane

    Dr. D.: Ha. Yes, you make a good point. There will always be volunteers. A few casino hotels with a view of Olympus Mons should do the trick.

    Anyway, with all due respect for the Challenger crew and their loved ones….

  • Dr Dreadful

    [geek turbo on]

    Duane, you are aware, are you not, that a view of Olympus Mons, anywhere other than from orbit, would be underwhelming?

    It’s a vast shield volcano, with slopes so gentle that, although the summit is 14 miles above mean Martian surface level, if you were standing on the thing you wouldn’t even realize it was a mountain.

    [/geek turbo off]