Ad Astra Per Ardua

Nine years ago I recalled the sixteenth anniversary of the Challenger loss:

Sixteen years ago today, I was sitting in a meeting at the Rockwell Space Transportation Systems Division in Downey, California. It was a status review meeting for a contract on which I was working, called the Space Transportation Architecture Study. It was a joint NASA/USAF contract, and its ostensible purpose was to determine what kind of new launch systems should replace or complement the Space Shuttle. Its real purpose was to try to get the Air Force and NASA Marshall to learn how to play together nicely and stop squabbling over turf and vehicle designs (it failed).

It was a large meeting, with many people in attendance from El Segundo and Colorado Springs (Air Force) and Houston, Huntsville and the Cape (NASA) as well as many Rockwell attendees.

As I sat there, waiting for the meeting to begin, one of my colleagues came running into the room, his face white as a freshly-bleached bedsheet. He leaned over and told me and others, in an insistent sotto voce, “I just saw the Challenger blow up.”

We stared at him in momentary disbelief.

“I’m serious. I just came from the mission control center. It just exploded about a minute after launch.”

One could actually see the news travel across the large meeting room as expressions of early-morning torpor transformed into incredulity and shock. More than most people, even with no more information than the above, we understood the implications. While there was speculation in the media all morning that the crew might be saved, we knew instantly that they were lost. We knew also that we had lost a quarter of the Shuttle fleet, with a replacement cost of a couple billion dollars and several years, and that there would be no flights for a long time, until we understood what had happened.

The ironic purpose of our meeting became at once more significant and utterly meaningless. Most of the NASA people immediately made arrangements to fly back to Houston, Huntsville and the Cape, and we held the session without them, in a perfunctory manner.

This was one of those events, like the more recent one in September, that is indelibly etched into memory–where you were, what you were doing, what you were feeling. I’m curious about any inputs from others, either in comments here or email.

Oh, and I should note that it’s an easy date to remember for me–it was (and remains still) the anniversary of my date of birth…

It’s kind of amazing that I’m coming up on the tenth anniversary (this coming fall) of the birth of this blog.

[Update a few minutes later]

Clark Lindsey has some 25th anniversary links, and NASA Watch is all about the anniversary today.

6 thoughts on “Ad Astra Per Ardua”

  1. Happy Birthday, Rand!

    I sympathize with the cloud over your birthday – my mom was born on 9/11 and she was devastated. There’s still sadness, but it’s a good day to be alive.

  2. I was in the platoon tactics week of the advanced NCO course at Ft St Knox, pretty much the wrap up week of the thing, next was graduation. The powers that be wheeled a television into the exercise room so we could see what had happened. Not much else happened that day.

  3. I was working an office job at a large insurance company. A co-worker walked by my desk and said, “The space shuttle blew up.” He could be a bit of a jokester and it took a bit of back-and-forth before I was sure he wasn’t kidding. At one point I said, “Seriously?” and he responded, “Serious as a heart attack.” That was the first time I ever heard that phrase.

    I got up and went to the TV room, which people used for breaks and lunch. I spent the rest of the day there watching the launch video replayed over and over. I wasn’t the only one. Nobody said much. After a while my supervisor came looking for me and I told her, “Just count this as a vacation day.” I was pretty numb and wasn’t in the mood to do any more work.

    /oh, and Happy Birthday, Rand!

  4. A younger friend of mine once told me that his first memory of anything having to do with space was watching the destruction of Challenger on TV in grade school. His teacher was in tears.

    People of my generation grew up watching success after success in manned spaceflight (including Apollo 13). It inspired us. I wonder if Challenger (and then Columbia) turned off the later generation?

  5. I had the only good paying job of my life ($1000/35 hrs.) in NYC. I could not believe it had anything to do with the SRBs. When I found out it really had to do with bureaucrats my faith was restored.

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