29 Years Since The Challenger Exploded, One of My Earliest Memories

January 28th, 2015
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Space flight is dangerous.  Taking a rocket into orbit means sitting on a controlled explosion happening under an enormous tank of fuel and oxidizer.  Rocket engines are under such tremendous forces, they push engineering to its limits.  Once one arrives in space, the spacecraft must protect occupants from one of the harshest environments imaginable.  Then, upon return, the rapid reentry to the atmosphere subjects the craft to enormous heat and pressure.  Every part of a space mission is dangerous.

It is more dangerous when politics and a desire for good publicity and scheduling gets in the way of more important concerns over safety and engineering.   This is what happened to the Challenger.  It was the first American space mission to result in causalities (although astronauts had died before in practice sessions and dry runs, such as Apollo 1).  It was the worst loss of life in a single space mission up to that time.  It would be tied by the 2003 breakup of the shuttle Columbia.

The accident put a temporary halt to the US space program and resulted in numerous safety improvements.  Unfortunately, these improvements were not enough to stop another tragedy from happening with the Space Shuttle.  While the Shuttle proved to be one of he most capable craft for low earth orbit, with unique capabilities, like the capacity to retrieve satellites from orbit, it also has some other, more dubious, distinctions.  More lives have been lost in the Space Shuttle than any other spacecraft.  It has a LOVC (loss of vehicle and crew) rate of greater than one percent, for all launches.

For me, the Challenger incident has other significance.  I was three years old at the time if happened.  It is one of my earliest distinct memories and the earliest memory I can pin directly to an event.

My memories are vague, but I do remember a few things.  My mother worked with a man whose television was not working on that day.  He came over to my home to watch the TV coverage.  He and my father were glued to the set all afternoon and evening.  I was upset because I wanted to watch Mister Roger’s neighborhood and we only had the one television.

My parents watched ABC news.  It’s amazing but these videos actually jar distinct memories for me.



This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 28th, 2015 at 8:03 pm and is filed under History, media, personal, Space. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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25 Responses to “29 Years Since The Challenger Exploded, One of My Earliest Memories”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    I recall President Reagan quoting very appropriately from John Gillespie Magee’s poem High Flight later that day bringing tears to my eyes.


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  2. 2
    L.Long Says:

    I remember it happening and people saying this will end space flight, to which I responded that I volunteer for the VERY NEXT flight!!! Schite Happens! Its amazing how people today are so scared to risk anything.


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  3. 3
    Jeff Walther Says:

    I was working at NASA JSC when Challenger exploded. It’s not often one sees a conference room full of engineers quietly crying.


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  4. 4
    DV82XL Says:

    The other iconic moment from that affair was at the Rogers Commission when physicist Richard Feynman did the famous ice-water experiment in the face of NASA’s management on television. Feynman was (as Feynman always was) the loose wheel on that commissioned and made himself a pain in the butt conducting his own investigation separate from the official one, uncovering a great deal more rot that many members wanted to see exposed.


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  5. 5
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Jeff Walther said:

    I was working at NASA JSC when Challenger exploded.

    It’s not often one sees a conference room full of engineers quietly crying.

    What part of NASA did you work in? Were you actively involved in the manned space program?


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  6. 6
    drbuzz0 Says:

    I might mention that as I have learned more about the Challenger incident, my reaction has been less sadness than anger. The Columbia accident was obviously preventible, but between the two, it was really the less reckless one.

    The entire “teacher in space” thing was a bad idea. There’s no science gained from sending a civilian up and taking those risks and spending so much money on it. I’m not saying anything against teachers or learning, but a kid can learn that things float in space and the other aspects of science without having to send an actual school teacher on a space flight. It was inappropriate to put a civilian at risk like that.

    Not just that, the whole damn thing was a stupid publicity stunt. If it had not been such a high profile mission, the repeated mission aborts would not have been a big deal. The fact that it became a political and publicity event made NASA act all the more reckless in pushing for the launch under conditions that were not ideal.

    I suppose one could argue that this was bound to happen eventually. The SRB’s had a very major flaw in the design. If it had not happened to Challenger, it seems like eventually there would have been an extended cold spell in Florida and it would have happened to another mission.


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  7. 7
    Paul Studier Says:

    The cause of the disaster was cold O-Rings. From the Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_Challenger_disaster ,

    At a teleconference on the evening of January 27, Thiokol engineers and managers discussed the weather conditions with NASA managers from Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center. Several engineers (most notably Roger Boisjoly) re-expressed their concerns about the effect of low temperatures on the resilience of the rubber O-rings that sealed the joints of the SRBs, and recommended a launch postponement.[12] They argued that they did not have enough data to determine whether the joints would properly seal if the O-rings were colder than 53 °F (12 °C). This was an important consideration, since the SRB O-rings had been designated as a “Criticality 1″ component, meaning that there was no backup if both the primary and secondary O-rings failed, and their failure would destroy the Orbiter and its crew.

    Thiokol management initially supported its engineers’ recommendation to postpone the launch, but NASA staff opposed a delay. During the conference call, Hardy told Thiokol, “I am appalled. I am appalled by your recommendation.” Mulloy said, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch — next April?”

    So it was more bad management than bad engineering.


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  8. 8
    DV82XL Says:

            Paul Studier said:

    So it was more bad management than bad engineering.

    Those of us that have worked in aerospace recognize the symptoms of that disease very well because it happens to the best of them unless it is proactively suppressed. There have been several airline accidents traced back to maintenance faults where hard-pressed managers, or stressed out technicians have put schedule before safety with dire consequences and each and every time it is found that a culture of this sort of risk-taking has been growing like a cancer in the organization for a considerable time. In my experience it is always caused by top down influences that start at the border between the technical and the financial decision makers when the latter gain far too much influence over operational matters and the former are due to personality or lack of training, unable to communicate their concerns up the chain of command effectively. This rot, once it has set in, is almost impossible to eliminate and companies have failed outright because they cannot make those changes. NASA itself was not able to do so and that was reflected in the next shuttle accident as was exposed by the commision impaneled in the aftermath to study it.


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  9. 9
    BMS Says:

            Paul Studier said:

    So it was more bad management than bad engineering.

    No, I’m sorry. I must disagree. The Challenger accident was a result of bad engineering — specifically, bad engineering communication.

    Edward Tufte has a good discussion of the failures that happened in his book Visual Explanations (Graphics Press, Cheshire, CT, 1997). There he shows — with reproductions of the actual material prepared by the engineers at Morton Thiokol and faxed to NASA — how the 13 charts that were used by Morton Thiokol to argue for a delay of the launch were unconvincing.

    First, the wrong variable, “blow-by” instead of O-ring erosion, was emphasized. Then, the data were not grouped, presented, or discussed in a way that would lead to a meaningful understanding of the information. The conclusions given in the faxed material were weak at best. Basically, the only thing that NASA had to go on as an argument against a launch was a queasy feeling by the low-level engineers. By the time of the launch, these engineers had failed to convince even their own managers, much less the people at NASA. Blaming the managers in this situation is equivalent requiring that the managers must be able to read minds. It’s ridiculous.

    Tufte also demonstrates that, had the data been presented and discussed in an intelligent, coherent manner, the decision to postpone the launch would have been obvious. He even critiques and criticizes several of the displays prepared for the presidential commission after the accident, which “still didn’t get it right.”

    This book was written before the Columbia shuttle accident. Tufte followed up his analysis of the Challenger accident with a discussion of the materials used to make the key decisions that lead to this disaster in Beautiful Evidence (Graphics Press, Cheshire, CT, 2006). If anything, by 2003, the situation had become even worse.

    As Tufte shows in a section of the book called “PowerPoint Does Rocket Science,” the mostly handwritten material that was faxed to NASA in 1986 had been replaced almost entirely by PowerPoint slides. So material that used to be mostly numbers with some sparse supporting text had become a nearly endless series of mindless and misleading bullet points. Tufte even includes a two-page diagram that critiques the severe flaws in a slide that was supposed to indicate “conservatism for tile penetration.” It truly is a prime example of a failure to communicate.

    Sadly, the “PowerPoint method” is still being taught in schools today, including engineering schools, as a way, if not the primary way, of communicating technical data. We now have a young generation of engineers in the US that have been brought up with and fully indoctrinated in this type of communication style and a complacent managerial community that readily embraces it.

    It’s probably a good thing that NASA ended the shuttle program. Another disaster like these two would have been only a matter of time.


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  10. 10
    DV82XL Says:

            BMS said:

    By the time of the launch, these engineers had failed to convince even their own managers, much less the people at NASA. Blaming the managers in this situation is equivalent requiring that the managers must be able to read minds. It’s ridiculous.

    Here we go. No question the technical managers have gotten the damp end of this idiotic culture change that has infected all of aerospace. Call it PowerPoint communication, or as I have “the three-ring binder” mentality, there has been a concerted effort to create a decision making process that tries to take making decisions out of the hands of those that should be making them and subordinates it to a ‘process’ so that some bean-counter can pretend he understands. The root of this is the fat that the top of these organizations are not populated by those with a real understanding of the technology, that quite frankly, do not trust those below them that do. You can feel their attitude in the catch-phrases they are fond of like,’ We can’t afford to have a gold-plated program here,’ and similar nonsense that assumes that cost, and cost alone needs to be the deciding factor. Yes, agreed costs need to be minimized, but the hidden assumption that those on the technical/engineering end are indifferent to that factor is as insulting as it is ludicrous, yet this attitude prevails. It’s the same damned thing we see in other topics cover on these pages: those that think they know feel they can dictate the terms of reality to those that do – and with essentially the same result.


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  11. 11
    drbuzz0 Says:

    I think that there is much blame to go around. There was a management decision to launch when they should not have. Much of it comes from concerns over things like publicity and wanting to avoid postponements to the launch, which had already been scrubbed for other reasons.

    However, there’s no doubt that the O-ring design was faulty. It preformed normally when it was warm enough, but the safety of the Shuttle should not have been resting on a part that was that close to failure. There should have been a much greater factor of safety. They also had some previous incidents where there was partial burn-through of one of the O-rings. It was not something that came very close to a complete failure, but it was reason for concern.

    After the Challenger incident, the joints in the SRB’s were redesigned. They added a third O-ring, heaters were added, there were some changes in the O-ring material and they put in more of a flange around the O-rings.

    These redesigns should have happened before the incident. It was irresponsible to fly the Shuttle with these known deficiencies of the O-rings.

    I have some issues with the overall design philosophy of the Shuttle. In the Space Shuttle, safety was largely based on trying to make systems as reliable as possible and not incorporating many contingencies if they did fail. This was a major departure from all previous manned rockets. For example, the Space Shuttle is the only human-rated spacecraft that lacks any kind of complete abort escape mode during a larger portion of the launch. It has very limited tolerance for engine failure.

    A lot of this comes down to the design criteria and the politics of how the Shuttle came into existence. Initially it was supposed to be a reusable launch system for crew transport, which was supposed to be more economical and easier than expendable launch systems. Then it was decided that it also had to be a heavy-lift launch system for every payload the US had. On top of that, it was decided that the design had to make use of the existing launch facilities to the maximum extent possible – to save money (which it did not.)

    The Space Shuttle turned out to be the most capable low earth orbit vehicle ever built. It could carry astronauts and a payload, it could be configured in a huge number of ways. It had a lot of pressurized work space. It facilitated work on satellites that had been impossible, previously. It could capture objects. It could bring them back to earth.

    However, there were two of the design criteria which it failed at miserably. It was supposed to be low cost and safe. It was neither.


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  12. 12
    DV82XL Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    A lot of this comes down to the design criteria and the politics of how the Shuttle came into existence.

    You are right, there was too much mission creep in the design phase of the Shuttle which anyway was largely 1960′s technology and it was not and never could be low cost as that was always out of the envelope regardless. Radically new aircraft are never all that cost efficient BUT they can be operated safely if procedures are adhered to. The first models of 707′s DC-8′s would never make the cut today because they too were a symphony of compromises and needed a LOT of maintenance to keep safely in the air. Everyone understood this and acted accordingly and as designs improved, one could get away with things that would have amounted to criminal negligence on older equipment, but that didn’t mean that you could take a cavalier attitude with everything.


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  13. 13
    Jeff Walther Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    What part of NASA did you work in?

    Were you actively involved in the manned space program?

    Strictly speaking I was a McDonnell Douglas contractor, but I was working on-site (Bldg. 29) in Attached Payload Integration in Shuttle Operations. I wasn’t working that mission, I am relieved to be able to write.


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  14. 14
    Paul Studier Says:

    This reminds me of the Nedelin catastrophe, which was a rocket explosion in the Soviet Union. It killed about 100 people. From http://www.aerospaceweb.org/question/spacecraft/q0179.shtml

    Both Nedelin and Yangel hoped to please Premier Nikita Khrushchev by demonstrating a successful launch of the R-16 prior to November 7, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

    Nevertheless, technical problem with the flight control system continued to plague the test preparations. Despite these obstacles, the rocket was moved from the assembly building to the launch pad at a location called Site 41 on October 21. At this point, fueling of the rocket with its toxic and highly corrosive propellants began. Proper safety protocols insisted that all non-essential personnel evacuate the area during fueling operations in case of an accident. However, Nedelin ignored these regulations and reportedly set up a chair at the pad from which he could oversee the arrangments. Approximately 150 other civilian and military personnel also stayed at the site under his direction.

    As preparations for the launch continued, increasingly more fuel leaks and electrical problems began to emerge. On October 23, a number of electrical faults occurred that prevented the propellant pumps from working properly. The rocket would have to be drained of fuel before beginning repairs, but Marshal Nedelin refused to do so since it would delay the launch by at least several hours. He instead ordered workers to perform their repairs on the rocket while its dangerous propellants were still aboard.

    Once again pressure to meet a deadline caused a fatal accident.


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  15. 15
    drbuzz0 Says:

    It seems that the Russians are not as big on range safety as the US, even today. Having VIP spectators anywhere near a large rocket launch is not a good idea, especially with hyperbolic fuel. When they launched Titan rockets they tended to keep people back a good few miles and they were normally launched out over the ocean, with a large exclusion zone going out to sea.

    When they launched Shuttles, the closest the public generally got was about six miles. It was possible for press to get closer (about 3.5 miles.) Nasa workers who were closer, operating recording equipment and such, were generally in some kind of bunker or shelter.

    You can’t get much closer to ELV launches. basically nobody is out in the open within about three miles of most US launches.

    There was a photo published a few years ago of someone watching a Soyuz launch. Even despite the telephoto lens, it’s pretty clear that he was relatively close. I actually wrote the photographer.

    He told me he was less than a statute mile from the launch pad and the man in the photo he estimated at being between half and two thirds of a mile from the pad – so somewhere around one kilometer, roughly.

    http://depletedcranium.com/soyuz-tma-9-yes-this-guy-is-close-but-not-that-close/


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  16. 16
    Matte Says:

            BMS said:

    No, I’m sorry. I must disagree. The Challenger accident was a result of bad engineering — specifically, bad engineering communication.

    Never design anything by committee especially when politics are involved!

    It does not matter how well you communicate with management as an engineer, if management just want to see the bottom line and nothing else your only options are to shoot them or find employment else where…


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  17. 17
    Apollo Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    I think that there is much blame to go around. There was a management decision to launch when they should not have. Much of it comes from concerns over things like publicity and wanting to avoid postponements to the launch, which had already been scrubbed for other reasons.

    However, there’s no doubt that the O-ring design was faulty. It preformed normally when it was warm enough, but the safety of the Shuttle should not have been resting on a part that was that close to failure. There should have been a much greater factor of safety.

    They also had some previous incidents where there was partial burn-through of one of the O-rings. It was not something that came very close to a complete failure, but it was reason for concern.

    After the Challenger incident, the joints in the SRB’s were redesigned. They added a third O-ring, heaters were added, there were some changes in the O-ring material and they put in more of a flange around the O-rings.

    These redesigns should have happened before the incident. It was irresponsible to fly the Shuttle with these known deficiencies of the O-rings.

    I have some issues with the overall design philosophy of the Shuttle. In the Space Shuttle, safety was largely based on trying to make systems as reliable as possible and not incorporating many contingencies if they did fail. This was a major departure from all previous manned rockets. For example, the Space Shuttle is the only human-rated spacecraft that lacks any kind of complete abort escape mode during a larger portion of the launch. It has very limited tolerance for engine failure.

    A lot of this comes down to the design criteria and the politics of how the Shuttle came into existence. Initially it was supposed to be a reusable launch system for crew transport, which was supposed to be more economical and easier than expendable launch systems.

    Then it was decided that it also had to be a heavy-lift launch system for every payload the US had. On top of that, it was decided that the design had to make use of the existing launch facilities to the maximum extent possible – to save money (which it did not.)

    The Space Shuttle turned out to be the most capable low earth orbit vehicle ever built. It could carry astronauts and a payload, it could be configured in a huge number of ways. It had a lot of pressurized work space. It facilitated work on satellites that had been impossible, previously. It could capture objects. It could bring them back to earth.

    However, there were two of the design criteria which it failed at miserably. It was supposed to be low cost and safe. It was neither.

    This. This kind of mentality tends to cause all sorts of problems, not to mention cost blowouts. The idea that our new project is so expensive, it has to do everything. Case in point, the space shuttle, F-35, and practically every major military project in the US for the last few decades. Jack-of-all-trades, master of none, is more true in aerospace than in any other field.

    Especially the F-35. Seeing how much money has been poured down that hole is sickening, especially considering how limited NASA’s budget is compared to the military’s. And this coming from an Australian, so you know I’m a bit pissed.

    Anyway, keep up the fine work buzz0! This is one of the few blogs I check every day. Always looking forward to new content :)


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  18. 18
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Apollo said:

    Especially the F-35. Seeing how much money has been poured down that hole is sickening, especially considering how limited NASA’s budget is compared to the military’s. And this coming from an Australian, so you know I’m a bit pissed.

    Oh don’t feel bad that you’re left out of our wonderful boondoggle with the F-35. In addition to being the US’s new air superiority/veritical takeoff/carrier operations/patrol/electronic warfare/close in air support/tactical bombing aircraft, it is also going to be our export combat aircraft, replacing the F-18, F-16 and F-15′s.

    And your government has already shown a lot of interest in it.

    So you will get to have some of these wonderful…. things… too!

    In fact, correct me if I am wrong, but I believe Australia is even one of the “Development Partners” in the F-35

    You are very welcome! :-)

    The only thing I think is wrong with the F-35 right now is that there are some roles that they have not said it will fill. I don’t understand why they have not also declared it to be the new troop transport aircraft, to replace the C-17 and C-130.


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  19. 19
    drbuzz0 Says:

    (the last part was sarcasm)


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  20. 20
    DV82XL Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    … it is also going to be our export combat aircraft, replacing the F-18, F-16 and F-15′s.

    Suppliers in the F-35′s eight other partner countries, (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the United Kingdom) are producing F-35 components for all aircraft, not just those for their country, making the ‘export’ aspect of the program a bit moot I would think. The fact is that this is the way it’s going to have to be on these large aerospace projects from here on out. smaller nations just can’t afford to pony up for a weapon’s platform like this if their own manufacturing sector isn’t getting a taste. That’s the way it is moving on the commercial side of aviation as well.


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  21. 21
    ThisGuy Says:

    The F-35 is a doomed project and I’m STILL hoping the Netherlands will somehow gain an iota of common sense and bail before spending most of our defence budget for the comming decades on this piece of compromise engineering.

    (It’s nowadays commonly refered to as the Flying Fyra in a lot of Dutch media. Fyra being the name for the high speed train link to Brussels which was supposed to run Italian built AnsaldoBreda V250 trains. They were a massive failure, with rust appearing even before they were delivered, parts dropping off at high speeds, door operation failures and icing problems even before the end of the trial runs. They choice for the V250 had been heavily criticized before and after the purchase. In the end it has cost the Dutch tax payer millions of euro’s becomes some managers didn’t want to admit they might have made a mistake by going for cheap as the only criterium. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fyra)

    The shuttle disasters and a lot of other incidents in the space industry are also great examples of organisational rot. No-one is solely to blame for the event as many people failed. I find it baffeling that the safety culture that permiates the aviation bussiness is not nearly as active in the space programs. It seems people want to first and foremost assign blame rather than find the cause of something. In my experience the typical american workplace hierarchy (from my little experience of it) doesn’t help here either. There seems to be a real sense of “I don’t want to annoy the boss or management” in every decision making process. The typical Dutch workplace is a lot more blunt/straightforward on those manners. I have no problem telling my managers they are being idiots (not that it helps much though…)


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  22. 22
    سامانه ارسال پیامک Says:

    tanks for your website Thanks

    سامانه پیامک

    پنل پیامک

    پنل اس ام اس

    سامانه پیام کوتاه


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  23. 23
    George Carty Says:

            L.Long said:

    I remember it happening and people saying this will end space flight, to which I responded that I volunteer for the VERY NEXT flight!!! Schite Happens! Its amazing how people today are so scared to risk anything.

    I wonder how much today’s risk-aversion is a direct result of the rise of atheism (no more belief in an after-life) as well as our demographic transition to a low birth rate, low death rate society?


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  24. 24
    AKA the A Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    In addition to being the US’s new air superiority/veritical takeoff/carrier operations/patrol/electronic warfare/close in air support/tactical bombing aircraft, it is also going to be our export combat aircraft, replacing the F-18, F-16 and F-15′s.

    Luckily for you, the F-35 is NOT an air-superiority plane, that’s F-22s role – it’s basically supposed to replace the F-15, while the F-35 is supposed to replace everything else that is not a cargo plane or a chopper :P

    (on the other hand they want to use it for CAS at which it also will be worse then existing aircraft, so…)


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  25. 25
    James Greenidge Says:

    I met poor Judith Resnick at a lightly attended meeting by “Campaign For Space” which I was a member of then hosted by the NY Historical Society maybe one or two years before Challenger. She had some LOL “home movies” of her on a treadmil in one of her shuttle flights. I wish the Society devoted as much attention to Judy as they gave the idiot “Archie Bunker’s Place” little girl who showed up in an aluminum foil suit trying to be pro-space cute. Judith was the PR jewel in the crown that NASA should’ve had trotting around schools more, not any “teacher in space” gimmick. The idea of “teacher in space/senator in space” was a bad idea from the get-go in giving the public the very wrong idea that space was that “routine” and “easy”. The plighted teacher thing also diminished the humanity of the other astronauts — it was like media acted like it was the human teacher plus faceless robots on that flight. The media was just about finished phasing out “science editors” around that time and it showed in the anti-O ring mania after the commission’s findings and most anything using O-rings was given the evil eye it seemed. Silly. On a maybe macabre techie note, I remember reporters saying that Challenger “exploded” with full force. If they did their homework they’s known only a fraction of the craft’s explosive potential was unleashed. That massive “vapor cloud” that ensued after the SRB’s cone skewed into and ruptured the center tank was freed unignited hydrogen and oxygen — maybe 90+% escaped ignition and dissipated. Had it all actually gone up at once, they’d been no debris of Challenger left larger than confetti.. And you’d royally hear it on the ground like a tactical nuke test.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY


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