It’s pretty clear that nothing untoward precipitated the disintegration of the Columbia spaceshuttle upon it’s re-entry. No terrorism is needed when our own scientists make calculated risks that others are forced to take.
The first rumors that the damaged left wing of the shuttle might have been the root cause of the breakup came almost immediately after the story broke. Of course the launch on the 16th barely made headlines and therefore the mishap during the launch didn’t even register.
In my mind, I felt pretty certain WELL before the speculation of what might have happened began to trickle out, that NASA’s own slowly declining importance in American mainstream culture had everything to do with the tragedy.
NASA scientists have been complaining for years about funding and the dwindling importance our government places on this agency. Have we gone as far as we can go with the space program? Is there nothing new to discover? Have our collective brains turned to low-brow mush, while we turn our backs on the higher pursuit of knowledge and scientific discovery?
In 1986, the launching of the Challenger was an enormous deal, at least to school age children. A real life person was going into outerspace, a teacher. I was fascinated by space and the solar system. I took astronomy as an elective and was drawn to sci-fi literature. I even scored in the 98% for science on the ACT (which is quite noteworthy, considering how poorly I did in math -you DON’T want to know). I was, and still am, a space buff.
When the Challenger exploded, I was in English class watching with my fellow students. It was horrifying. Unnatural. Grimly surreal – as though some strange twists of fate had aligned to watch us all collectively gasp and cry out. My teacher began to cry, I cried. Hell, we all cried. We just couldn’t believe it.
When I got home that night, my parents remembered the Apollo tragedy and how that shook their generation and their parents.
I am not sure if this tragedy could have been avoided. The news reports consistently say that when the initial problem occured during launch, scientists from NASA and around the world conferred with each other and the astronauts on board, and ultimately the damage assessment was concluded to be minor. If I recall, the culprit behind Challenger was considered a minor design flaw. But to use a cliche, this is rocket science – and if using exact measurements in chemistry is important in high school, then using exact science when caring for our nation’s bravest and most intelligent should be exact as well.
Maybe we need to decide if we are going to un-neuter NASA or abandon it for good; quite honestly, we can’t afford to lose any more of the world’s best scientists due to poorly calculated risks because of one thing: money.
The most ghastly thing I have seen so far is the father of Captain Brown, Paul Brown during a brief interview on CNN. He was expressing his desire to have something of his son to bury – while we watched he tried to console himself to the fact that there really would be nothing other than, perhaps, some charred DNA. He had seen the footage, he knew.
It was very painful to watch this personal struggle while all we could do is shake our heads with distant grief, a grief that now feels all too familiar.