An older generation will never forget where they were when they heard the news of President Kennedy’s murder Alas, I have three such memories. The 2001 terror attacks in the US, the destruction of Columbia and its crew in 2003 and the loss of Challenger are events whose horror has etched them permanently on my memory. Here are my personal reactions to this sad piece of history.
I was sitting at home with my brother and father early on a January evening in 1986. I wasn’t watching the television but looked up when a newsflash interrupted the gameshow Countdown. “The space shuttle Challenger has exploded” were the chilling first words from the solemn newsreader, followed by footage of the terrible yet eerily beautiful fireball which ended seven lives. Chilled to the bone, I didn’t need to be told that the crew were unlikely to have survived.
The disaster also ended an age of innocence. For the years immediately following Columbia’s first flight to orbit it had seemed that space travel was back on track. NASA’s gleaming fleet of high-tech shuttles were routinely carrying payloads into space (Challenger’s final flight was the 25th shuttle mission). Soon a shuttle would place a giant telescope above the atmosphere, another would send the Galileo mission towards Jupiter. A proper modular space station would no doubt follow a few years later. Before long we would see unique materials created in microgravity, orbiting solar power collectors beaming free energy back to Earth. By 2000, surely the cheap access to space afforded by the shuttle would lead to a return to the Moon and human exploration of Mars. It was not yet Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001, but it was getting there.
Suddenly these dream turned to ashes. In the months following we learned how uncertain and expensive each shuttle mission was, how much of the apparent ease of shuttle operations was really well-meaning propaganda. In retrospect, it should have been obvious. Launching a hypersonic rocket plane into space and bringing it back were not the routine tasks they had seemed. Never again would I believe the conquest of space to be easy.
(article by Colin Johnston, Science Education Director)