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The Bright Yellow Asterisk: A Recollection of the Challenger Disaster

January, 1987. I stood alone 167 feet above the launch pad’s surface. I was staring into the open, small, white room. At the other end was an open doorway and beyond it was the blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Between me and that 167 foot drop, the...

Jan 28 2012, 1:00pm

Challenger on its way to the launch pad. Photo via NASA

Dennis Chamberland, a long-time NASA engineer, is preparing for the first mission of his undersea habitat, Atlantica. We profiled him in this documentary.

January, 1987. I stood alone 167 feet above the launch pad's surface. I was staring into the open, small, white room. At the other end was an open doorway and beyond it was the blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Between me and that 167 foot drop, the safety team had installed a heavy yellow canvas asterisk – a series of straps arranged in the form of a complicated series of crosses that kept anyone here from falling down to the concrete surface of the pad so far below. I just stood there staring at the open door, the bright ocean beyond and the yellow asterisk barrier that was so symbolic. For the last seven humans that had walked through that open door just one year before had never returned.

As I stared through that door, there were so many memories that flooded back to me. On that morning just a year before, I sat at home with my daughter Katy, watching the Challenger's fateful final mission unfold on CNN. My daughter was one year and five days old on that unusually bitterly cold morning. I had watched the NASA Astronauts in that same white room where I now stood entering the Challenger spaceship: Commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka and Judith A. Resnik, Payload specialists Gregory B. Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, who was to have been the first teacher in space and was chosen from more than 11,000 applicants.

I watched as they closed the hatch, as the room was swung away from the ship. I watched the countdown and the liftoff and the whole unthinkable nightmare that ensued. As I held my sleeping daughter tightly in my arms, I saw the ugly cloud engulf the Challenger, the sinuous hydra of the rockets breaking free and snaking around one another in the dark blue sky. And all of that was followed by the sickening telescopic camera playing about the blue sky flecked with white clouds.

I cannot forget the cameras following the secret command embedded inside each of our brains searching the distant sky for the sign of the great ship that must somehow come out of those clouds and return safely to base. It was just not possible that they would not return home. It was NASA who built it, NASA who launched it – the very best and the very brightest cadre of men and women on the planet to whom failure was not an option. But then the long lenses on the cameras began to show the ocean surface miles offshore and there the splashes began to hit the frothing water. One after another – huge splashes. It was getting ready to sink in – the unthinkable…

And then the image of Christa McAuliffe's mother sitting in the bleachers replaced the pictures from the distant ocean impact zone. I will never forget the image of her face. The anguish on her face told the story – the entire story – all of it. What we had all just witnessed together was just not possible. It could not happen. Not here. Not at this place. Not at this time. Not with this special crew. And yet, it did. And as I saw her face and held my own daughter in my arms, I wept deeply and bitterly. I wept for all the trauma of that horrible disaster I had just witnessed live before my eyes. I wept for Christa and her mom, and the rest of crew and all their families. I wept for America and for the dream.

A year later, as I stood there in that white room, I remembered all that and my eyes clouded with tears again. For as I stared at that door at the end of that tiny white room, I knew that this was a sacred place, a hallowed place. And that at the end, the last explorers who crossed that barrier would never come home again.

Today, now a quarter of a century later, nearly 700 men and women have walked across that threshold and stepped out into the black unknown. Ultimately, seven more did not return. That doorway with its yellow asterisk barrier is an image that has been permanently burned in my memory. For that doorway represents everything to me – it is the doorway into human exploration and one does not cross its barrier lightly. Because it does not matter how prepared one is, or how much training one has or how much one trusts the system or how thoroughly one knows and understands the probabilities – there is always the careless moment, or the second of inattention or the sheer blind hand of fate in a complex system supervised by ten thousand eyes.

The bright yellow asterisk is the reminder that whomever it is that crosses the threshold and steps into the unknown is an explorer who fully understands that there is always a chance that they will not come home again. Stepping through that doorway is an honor and it is a privilege reserved for only a few but it comes with a heavy price. It always has and it always will. In the end, it is the perfect fool who steps outward who does not understand this price and who is not willing to pay that for which the check could come due at the most unexpected moment.

And so today, I honor my fellow explorers – the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger's final mission and as well the memory of all those who have not returned from each of their missions. And today I also honor the deepest expectation of them and all the others who have not returned home again. That it is the most important duty of those who have been called to explore, not to shrink back, but in fact, as we remember those who have paid the final price for the ultimate human endeavor, to honor them with our redoubled efforts to push ever outward and beyond. We much continue to push ever forward, to step around the bright yellow asterisk into those secret, dark and forbidding places that, once conquered, will be the cradles for the new generation of humans, and the launch pad for their generation of dreams and dreamers.


Photo: the Space Shuttle Challenger prior to its first flight, STS-6, in 1984.
This piece originally ran on January 28, 2011