Thirty years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up 73 seconds into its 10th mission, killing the seven crewmembers onboard, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space.
Though the latest anniversary has brought expected coverage, it's still not immediately apparent why this particular space disaster should stand out from other similar incidents, like the Apollo 1 fire of January 27, 1967 or the Columbia disaster of February 1, 2003. The fact that millions of people watched the Challenger's destruction live on television has a lot to do with this, of course, but it isn't quite obvious why it should attract attention so many years later. What is it that people are trying to eulogize or memorialize this time around?
The reason that the Challenger disaster has become a touchstone, apart from traumatizing a nation full of schoolchildren, is because January 28, 1986 was the day that that the dream of space travel for the average Joe died a little.
Needless to say, some people in the world are deeply passionate about space and space exploration, but these highly-committed, deeply-invested folks are a small fraction of the general population. When the wider public pays any attention to space and cosmic ventures, it usually boils down to the oldest of political questions: What's in it for me? Why am I supposed to be interested?
Deep down, beyond the usual rationalizations about science or utopian notions of new worlds, the average person's interest in space ventures comes down to whether they feel some level of personal engagement — something that allows for some vicarious interaction or thrill.
The box office success of movies like The Martian, Gravity, and Apollo 13 suggests that people are happy to be entertained by dramatic tales of survival that are set in space. But woe to the mission that doesn't provide drama. The third moon landing (the Apollo 13 mission) wasn't even covered live at the time until the crew had a catastrophic and near-fatal mishap. Once there were lives on the line, it drew all manner of interest.
What works even better than a bit of high drama is the possibility, however remote, that space exploits are within the grasp of ordinary people, allowing them to share in the experience. The implicit promise of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was that within a matter of years or decades, such rarefied adventures would be open to the public at large — just as the world went from watching newsreels about Charles Lindberg's non-stop flight across the Atlantic to enjoying regularly-scheduled commercial airline service a few decades later.
A space launch without a personal angle ultimately leaves little to discuss other than logistics, shipping, and cargo, which isn't the stuff of national drama.
In the early days of the Space Race, there were some different schools of thought on ways to move people and cargo to and from space. The ballistic folks thought in terms of artillery shells, missiles, and stuff that shoots straight up and eventually plows back through the atmosphere. The jet jockeys operated under the belief that the best ways to get to and from space involved interacting with the air, like a plane. Capsules are more practical for space travel, but the idea of spaceplanes is cooler and easier to imagine.
So, for a number of years stretching from the mid-to-late 1960s onward, the general belief was that if any system was going to shuttling John Q. Public to and from space, it would be a kind of hopped-up airplane… like the Space Shuttle.
NASA and others put quite a bit of stock in the idea that we could build something like a 747 for space. Early estimates pegged the number of Shuttle flights at somewhere around 130 over a two-year span. Instead, we got 135 actual Shuttle missions flown over the 30-year life of the program. Rather than 65 flights per year, we got an average of 4.5.
Even so, in the early years of the Shuttle, a lot of folks really wanted to believe that NASA would solve the problems and make the spacecraft perform as promised if it were just given enough time and resources to do so.
NASA tried so very, very hard to live up to those hopes and aspirations, launching Shuttles as fast as it could manage — nine Shuttle missions in the year before the Challenger disaster, in fact. At the time, all kinds of civilians had blasted off: payload specialists (industrial astronauts!), military payload specialists, and congressmen. A second shuttle launch site was under construction in California to allow the shuttle to orbit the planet from pole to pole, rather than around the equator. Interplanetary robotic missions launched from the Shuttle's cargo bay were in the offing, and NASA was developing a potentially booming satellite repair business.
The Teacher in Space program, announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, was another major step. The idea was for a teacher to be selected from among thousands of applicants to fly on the Challenger and deliver two 15-minute teaching lessons from space. Kids across the US spent weeks prepping for this big national moment in science education. Christa McAuliffe, who taught social studies at a high school in New Hampshire, could have been anyone's teacher.
Meanwhile, the public was left to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the average person might be able to get themselves to space within a couple decades.
The morning of the launch, some 17 percent of the US viewing audience watched the launch live as all those idle notions and distant fantasies about an optimistic future in space were blown across the Florida sky and killed just as surely as Christa McAuliffe, the five NASA astronauts, and two payload specialists had been. Here was an individual who had been celebrated and touted as a normal, everyday kind of person, and she'd died a tragic death on national TV for audaciously embodying the idea that anyone could go to space.
Subsequent polling and opinion surveys showed that the percentage of the US public that followed the Challenger disaster "very closely" or "closely" was pretty much on par with the public reaction to 9/11.
The Challenger disaster brought a high-flying part of the American psyche back down to earth, and it's unclear if, when, or how that will ever change. But a new wave of innovation, led by entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is slowly rekindling those idle thoughts about space. A 2010 poll shows that almost two-thirds of the American public expects to see an astronaut on Mars by 2050, while a bit more than half thinks that ordinary people will fly in space by then.
It's far too early to tell if the latest phase of space exploration, both government and privately-led, will succeed in getting astronauts to Mars or average folks to space. While it's nice to see some public optimism on that front, it's also important to realize how quickly those aspirations can be blown to pieces.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
Photo via NASA