The Challenger Disaster 35 years ago

I stopped and watched the launch as I was headed out the door to work. Those Shuttle launches hasdn’t become routine yet. My admiration turned to concern, and then to shock and horror. It was a sad day.

The first question that terrible day was how the government, and especially President Reagan, would respond. Reagan postponed his State of the Union address, which had been scheduled to take place that evening, and set out to craft a speech to the nation that would especially reach the hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren who had watched the disaster on live TV in their classrooms.

Unlike President Richard Nixon, who had a pre-written speech ready in case the first Apollo moon mission failed in 1969, Reagan’s staff had to improvise from scratch, with no time for the usual process for presidential statements. The job of drafting Reagan’s remarks fell to his speechwriter Peggy Noonan. The result was a 650-word speech that took less than five minutes for Reagan to deliver, but it ranks near the top of his many memorable speeches. Reagan’s reputation as “the great communicator” seldom found its mark more fully than that day.

The closing sentence, derived from a famous World War II-era poem by Canadian Air Force pilot John Gillespie Magee, is the most recalled part of Reagan’s speech: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” But the middle of the speech, where Reagan addressed himself to the schoolchildren of America about the harsh lesson of human tragedy, is where the important message is conveyed: Risk is a part of the human story. “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.” Reagan spoke to the families of all the lost astronauts over the following days; they all told him our space program must continue.

From the polarized politics of today, many Americans look back on the Reagan years with gauzy nostalgia and marvel at the moments of national unity, wondering if we can ever match it again. But the partisan divisions then were just as intense. That very morning, House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass) had exchanged bitter words with Reagan over the administration’s budget. Still, there was a difference, almost hard to imagine today. O’Neill was able to write later that the Challenger speech was “Reagan at his best; It was a trying day for all Americans, and Ronald Reagan spoke to our highest ideals.”

Another difference between then and today was the absence of social media to amplify misinformation and invective. There were rumors and false claims galore at the time anyway, such as that the White House had pressured NASA to launch that morning so as to coincide with Reagan’s scheduled State of the Union speech. But the slower news cycle and communications technology limited the spread of such claims. One shudders to think how the false stories would have spread with Twitter and Facebook.

I watched the footage in elementary school, the teachers were excited that a teacher was on board and had been planning to watch the launch for days. I was too young to really grasp the tragedy.

Space Shuttle Columbia’s disaster was worse for me. I was watching coverage of the re-entry at the Sonic car wash on Highland Drive near Van Winkle expressway. Another man in the waiting room was very shaken up, he was a contractor of some sort for Thiokol and said to me, “it’s over, there will never be another space shuttle mission”.

I had just got back from a combat field exercise the night before. I,and all the guys in my unit, were cleaning weapons and watching the launch on TV.

When the explosion occurred, we were in shock and disbelief of what we saw. It’s one of those things that you never forget seeing.

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I was in a Sociology class taught by Clark Knowlton, a crusty old professor who taught us a LOT about looking at society as not simply a collection of individuals, but as collections of social creatures who are representatives of their cultures, backgrounds, family circumstances, etc.

Anyway, Dr. Knowlton was late, we had a middle aged German lady in the class, she came in a couple of minutes late and said “Have ya heard da news? The space shuttle blew up!”

Since my mom was in education, the Christa McAuliffe angle hit pretty hard. Just last year I learned they were going to take Big Bird, but the costume was too big.

The WSJ article hit the nail on the differences between today and then. O’Neil & Reagan used to go to war on politics during the day, but would often share a beer in the evening. 20 years ago things had changed to echo chambers of perpetual fundraising & intensified special interest lobbying.

Today… dissolving consensus on the attack on the Capitol itself (or at least it seems that way).

The social media / disinformation difference is probably the biggest. Common agreement on facts, and a more cohesive social environment has given way to widespread disagreement on basic truth.

Challenger today might get absorbed into the ongoing blame game with little regard for the actual tragedy, or at least it seems that way. Maybe some event will help us get on the same page again. Maybe an Olympic hero will emerge this year? We need to detoxify from the endless political corrosion.

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Yep. We fools thought that with information more widely available that people would be more educated. We couldn’t have been more wrong. People will readily believe a meme, but scoff at any source that contradicts that meme and claim ______-wing bias.

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My memories of Challenger were of getting braces put back on my teeth, and getting something to eat at the Wendy’s on Highland and 62nd South with my mom. We didn’t get to see it live, but we heard about it at Wendy’s. When I got back into class after we ate, I went to my history class. We all watched the replay a few more times just trying to make sense of it all. I wish I could remember my history teacher’s name.

As for today’s politics: the extremes very much use the “us vs them” to demonize each other. Viewing the other as the “other” or some faceless nobody that makes it ok to spew hate back and forth. When I started at the U, I was a poli-sci major. So, I still watch politics closely through that lens. It’s amazing how things have changed in 35 years. Yes, there was rancor back then, but it was between the politicians mostly; it was also over policy not the end goal. Now I’m not sure the 2 primary sides have the same goal in mind, let alone how different the views on policy are. So yes, there needs to be much more face to face talk about these things, to give the “other” a face.

I have a memory of watching the challenger explode in grade school too, and thought it was live. We too were following it because of the teacher on board. Turns out - probably none of us witnessed it live:

See myth #1. Which brings to question for me, did I actually not see it at school and am remember wrong, or did they cart in that TV and show it to us after it happened. And if so, what in the world was wrong with them to show that to a bunch of 4th graders.

Of all the hours I spent in the Marriott Library, watching that tragedy with a group of fellow students is my most vivid memory there.

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I actually remember not watching it live, but rather, a teacher from the grade next door, who seemed like she had been watching it live, came running into our classroom to announce that the Space Shuttle had blown up. The explosion was at 9:38 am MST, so this jives with my memory of it being shortly after the school day began. I remember seeing the replay at some point during the day but it’s possible that didn’t happen until I arrived home.

I don’t know why I always choose to say I saw it live when I recount the story, I know damn well I didn’t. Apparently I’m not alone.

I remember very specifically where I was. This is one “those” type of events (Kennedy for the older folks, 9/11, etc.).

I was in a ballroom at the old Hotel Utah doing an event for the supercomputer company Cray, who was having an event. We had one of those big screen videos set up (very much a 1st gen of that tech) and we ended up getting a TV signal and putting it up on the screen for the people attending.

A teacher from Brighton was nominated, but didn’t make the final list. He won the McAuliffe award a couple of years later.

I went to Brighton. I remember the teacher, he was a physics teacher, I can’t recall his name right now. He did mock space shuttle missions throughout the year with students. He had a pretty elaborate set up: mission control in one room, the “shuttle” in another room. It was pretty cool. I never had him as a teacher, but I do recall several of my friends had him and loved him. He was an inspirational teacher for many of the students.

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I think you missed the part about schools.

Most schools actually were watching live. Because. Christa McAuliffe was on board NASA helped arrange live broadcasts into many schools.

Ironic that the people who, at that time likely would have been kept from seeing it, were some of the few watching live.

As a child of the industry, I watched the first solid booster static fire test from the hood of our VW Beetle in 1977 out at the Thiokol test facility, along with what seemed like most of the rest of Box Elder County, I knew a lot of the people who’s names would be in the press after the accident. Good people who were genuinely shattered by the event. Their lives were never quite the same. A good family friend who led the return to flight redesign effort just passed away two months ago. He never really got over it.

I was sitting in my office at Hercules that morning. The company had committed over $300M to build a expanded, automated factory to second source the solid boosters, so we were neck deep into the Shuttle’s success. A guy that worked for me was in my office telling me about how he’d had missed a shot at winning a car with a half-court shot at the Jazz game the night before, when another guy in my group came in and said, “The Space Shuttle just blew up.” I’ll never forget that moment. That night I couldn’t believe how factually incorrect the local news people were about the solid boosters. Fingers were already pointing toward them by that time, but they had completely incorrect animations and descriptions of how they worked.

My group did some work supporting Thiokol on redesign efforts later, but the Challenger disaster killed off what we’d been doing developing and qualifying a graphite/epoxy rocket motor case for the boosters that would have increased payloads by 40,000 lb. Nobody at NASA wanted to take that risk. It was amazing to me that by 2006, when I was working on projects to use graphite/epoxy structures in the Ares I rockets, how much NASA had forgotten about those cases. They didn’t even have the records still that they’d qualified them for flight and had them stacked and ready to go at Vandenburg AFB.

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You get a star for being a Bengal. I applied to be one of the students in the simulation, but didn’t get picked. I really wanted it and was so mad I wasn’t picked.

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You probably remember the fascist thing that Coach Chavez did every year as an experiment for the kids to learn more about freedom, rights, and responsibility.

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I was in early elementary and my older sister was two grades ahead of me. I remember they had a tv and watched it but we did not (not enough TVs to go around). I don’t remember seeing it that day or really anytime after. I was really interested in space. Maybe the school and my parents wanted to protect the younger kids - there weren’t a lot of good resources to know how to talk about these types of things as there are now.

Very much so. I actually had that class and it was great. As part of that class, we had mock political parties and candidate speeches, most students picked the standard stuff, but I went with a far-right party, at the time was known as the American Party. They had just held their national nominating convention at the Salt Palace, so I worked off their themes for my speech and nearly won the whole thing. I should have realized how scared of that I should have been at the time

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It was broadcast to schools that had satellite dishes (and at the time there wasn’t direct TV or Dish like satellite tv, it was those huge dishes), which was not common. My school didn’t ever have a satellite dish, but a church somewhat adjacent to it did. And think about this for a minute, this was the mid 80s, they had classrooms cabled to show it? Even cable TV was a rarity and luxury at the time. Further no one, even broadcast TV carried anything live or in real-time. They had to physically ship tapes.

They’ve actually done psychological studies on this, and the Challenger explosion is one of those events (like 9/11) that everybody has very vivid memories about that are almost invariably untrue. They did a study of kids who actually did watch it via the special NASA broadcast and kids who simply heard about the news and the kids who didn’t watch it actually have basically similar very vivid memories of it as the kids who actually did watch it.

So yes, it was broadcast by NASA via satellite to schools across America, and you MAY have been on of those schools, but probably not. Certainly didn’t watch it in your classroom live for the logistical problems mentioned above.

Guess what, I have a vivid memory of it too. Except I’m realizing it probably didn’t actually happen that way. I mean, maybe it did, maybe my school was special and had a satellite dish somewhere I didn’t know about and my classroom was wired to see it.

About 2.5 Million students watched via satellite, more by cable.

The estimate is 17% of the US watched it live, about 40,000,000 people. 85% of the US was aware within an hour of the failure.

It’s possible you did, and it’s possible you didn’t.

However I think the myths article made it appear less people watched than really did.

I think those stats support what I’m saying actually.

I don’t know if you grew up in Utah, but we all know they are big on being on the forefront of spending on education. Again, it is possible, but at 17% also still not probable.

And my point is, if you remember sitting in an assembly watching it, maybe it happened. If you remember sitting in your classroom watching it as I do, it probably didn’t. There’s a chance I saw it on tape delay, but probably not live. But most probable is like most people out there who think they saw it live, you probably didn’t.

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