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