Seed looks back at the tragedy of the Challenger.

January 28, 1986 is a day that all of us at Seed remember vividly. We wondered how it impacted others in our global science community, how it might have changed others’ perspectives. To that end, we asked some friends for a moment of time to jot down a note of reflection, pen a reactionary screed or give a brief answer to the question, “Where were you when the Challenger exploded?” Here’s what we heard back:

“Nearly 50 years into the space age, spaceflight remains the pinnacle of human challenge, an endeavor just barely possible with today’s technology. We at NASA are privileged to be in the business of learning how to do it, to extend the frontier of the possible, and, ultimately, to make space travel routine. It is an enormously difficult enterprise. The losses we commemorate today are a strong and poignant reminder of the sternness of the challenge.”
—NASA Administrator Michael Griffin in a statement to the press, January 26, 2006

“I was on an airplane flying back to Princeton from [Jet Propulsion Laboratory], where I had seen the first pictures coming back from the Voyager 2 fly-by of Uranus. Marvelous pictures of Miranda, a new world that nobody had seen before, transmitted by a spacecraft that the JPL engineers had upgraded with new software during the long flight from Saturn to Uranus. And then, on the airplane, pictures of Challenger exploding—What a sad contrast!  Voyager, a triumph of science and technical competence; the Shuttle, a tragedy of politics and technical incompetence.”
—Freeman Dyson, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

“I walked into my secretary’s office, and she told me the news, adding sadly, “And all the little children watched their teacher die.” I remember being angry at Reagan, who had responded to criticisms that he had neglected education by sending a schoolteacher into space—an empty, and, as it turned out, reckless symbolic gesture. More self-centeredly, I thought of the grant proposal I was about to send to NASA with some MIT colleagues to study the effects of zero-gravity on the perception of shape and spatial orientation, and how NASA would now no doubt have other, more pressing concerns. And I thought that the Space Shuttle was emblematic of America in the 1970s (when the program had been conceived and developed) —squat and ugly, without a clear purpose and technologically shoddy.” 
—Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist and linguist, author of The Language Instinct

“I remember I was teaching a class at Yale when I heard the news. It served as a stark and sad reminder that space travel is expensive and dangerous for humans, and that the best way to do science in space involves unmanned travel.”
—Lawrence M. Krauss, theoretical physicist, Case Western Reserve University

“I was watching the launch at the University of Pittsburgh where I was a visiting professor in the philosophy department. I was on sabbatical there, so unlike most of the faculty, I had a bit more time to hang around Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning basement where there were coffee shops and a TV.

When the Challenger exploded there was complete and utter silence on the part of the dozens of students watching with me, only broken by an occasional, “My God!” and an expletive or two.

My thought was that there was a teacher on that Shuttle. The teacher was someone I did not know but had lived in my hometown for a time: Christina McAuliffe. She knew my dad who owned and ran the most popular drug store in Framingham, Mass., for many years. They had chatted while she waited for him to fill a prescription.

I knew she was a bright woman very committed to space exploration. My dad had told me how much he liked her. I kept thinking it was really strange that this disaster had happened with the only astronaut I had any personal knowledge about on board, and what a bitter pill to swallow it was that this person was a teacher trying to engage young people in the thrill of finding new knowledge and pushing the frontiers of science.”
—Arthur L. Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania

A few comments from our colleagues at ScienceBlogs:

“I was a post-doc working at the Institute of Neuroscience, University of Oregon. I remember that it was an ordinary day, with a pile of specimens to process. I’d been sequestered away in a quiet room for most of the morning, slicing away on a microtome, and I’d come up to the lab for a cup of coffee. Everyone was standing around the radio, listening to the news. The whole lab came to a standstill. Nobody said anything. We all just stood there, staring out the window, hearing the news repeated over and over. It was very strange. It wasn’t quite like everyone was in shock, but more disquiet and regret.”
—P.Z. Myers, Ph.D., “Pharyngula”

“I was working as a mobile home repairman at the time. The day Challenger exploded I was installing some new siding on a mobile home. My boss was inside working on some electrical repairs. I knew there were problems when he came running outside hollering that the Challenger may have exploded. He wasn’t sure though. At first, I thought he was joking, but then I saw the look of shock and dismay on his face. So we went inside—the owner of the mobile home looked just as shocked—and watched the coverage. As they replayed the footage a few times, I realized I wouldn’t be able to do anymore work that day. I would like to be able to say that I was able to come up with some profound bit of wisdom to make myself feel better, but I didn’t. I just sat there numbly taking it in and wondering how what appeared to be a glorious day in Florida, a day full of sunlight and promise, could turn so deadly. Then I thought about how the families of the astronauts must feel and felt a bit selfish for trying to make myself feel better. After awhile my boss said “I can’t take anymore of this, I’m going home. If you want to go home, I’ll pay you for the day”. I didn’t think I could take anymore either, but once I got home I watched more anyway.
—Timothy McDougald, “Afarensis”

I was in 3rd grade, and in class, in upstate New York. I recall it was the afternoon, and we were doing our weekly current affairs section. My teacher was really into it: She had talked about Christa McAuliffe a lot and was obviously proud she was of the same profession. So I think it hit her hard—she was about McAuliffe’s age. They wheeled a TV in and we watched the reporting live until school got out. We were all a bit confused. I was a big space nut but the manned missions seemed a bit distant. I remember being a toddler in the early 1980s and seeing the first space shuttle landing on television and wishing everyone in the room was paying attention to me! Nevertheless, Challenger was definitely the first “disaster” that made a mark on my memory as a kid.
—Razib Khan, “Gene Expression”

Originally published January 28, 2006


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