Challenger

[I’m a day late on this. Apologies – no time to blog.]

25 years ago, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, 73 seconds into take-off. A symbol of national pride, an archetype of technology and progress and a source of inspiration to millions worldwide was decimated in an instant, live on TV. The resulting images, and the existential horror that they conjured  in the minds of those watching, had a profound affect on many. They certainly did on me.

In January 1986 I was a 6-year-old, space-obsessed young boy. I dreamt of being an astronaut and journeying among the stars. I could tell you all about the Saturn V, the rocket that took men to the moon, and the names of all the planets. I had more books about space than anything else, and it was an obsession that was rivalled only, years later, by my baby brother’s obsession with dinosaurs. Nothing made me more excited or hopeful than Space, and there was no greater symbol of that interest, excitement and hope than the Space Shuttle.

25 years ago we still believed in the redemptive power of technological progress. We still believed that, however messy and scary life was here on earth, we could survive and build a new, better life in the stars. The American Dream, the dream of building a better world out beyond the frontier, still persisted, and it captured the imagination of people all over the world. Space may not have been the Final Frontier, but it was certainly the next frontier. And together, through the brave efforts of a select few Americans, we were collectively reaching forward into a hope-filled future.

The Space Shuttle was not the pinnacle of Modernity; Apollo and the Saturn V was. But the Space Shuttle showed that the great achievements of mankind were not single, isolated events, and that Progress really did march on. Not only did we reach beyond the confines of the great Gravity Well and conquer the forces that contain us, but we could make a vessel that would transcend those barriers again and again and again, until such actions became mundane.

But of course they never became mundane. So many of us, small children and romantic adults alike, watched in awe as millions of kilos of high explosive propelled a few intrepid voyagers up where the rest of us could never go. And we were awestruck every single time. How could we be otherwise, for the act was so bold, so brazen, and the achievement so great. We marvelled at the power of Technology and human Ingenuity. We were proud. Proud of our collective accomplishment.

On the 28th January 1986 we were shown the limits of our achievements. We were shown what we knew all along: that we are mortals, that we are fallible, and that sitting on top of a giant firework is bloody dangerous.

On the 28th January 1986 Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, and five brave men and two brave women died. And the myth of progress and the American Space Programme died with them.

NASA still exists, and President after President makes promises about continuing the reach to the stars. But the drive, the hope, has gone out of the US Space Programme, because now we all know that our heroes can die, and that our expensive symbols of our magnificence can be brought to ground and shattered.

We have all become a little more depressed, a little less hopeful since 1986. We are more aware of our confinement here on this blue-green pebble, alone in a vast, great nothingness. Humanity has become more internalised on our problems and struggles and conflicts. It is probably no bad thing, but I cannot help but feel that we are poorer as a result.

For me, I remember the destruction of Challenger and the loss of STS-51-L keenly. There isn’t much I remember about being 6 years old, but the image of that spacecraft breaking apart so spectacularly and unexpectedly is imprinted on my consciousness, even now 25 years later. Even as a 6-year-old boy I knew that something terrible had happened, and that the world of my hopes and dreams would never be the same again. I was devastated.

The great, great hero of space travel Buzz Aldrin believes (or at least hopes) that we can use the memory of these events to galvanise ourselves forward, and spur the space programme on to new acts of greatness. I only wish that I could believe that to be true. No, it seems to me that the West has become tired and cynical of Progress and fails to see the benefit of great acts of risk and heroism. It seems like it will be left to nations such as India and China to reach hopefully for the stars; nations young(?) enough and optimistic enough to not be cowed by the thought of losing a hero or two along the way.

On Monday Discovery will roll out to the launch-pad again, ready for the last ever Space Shuttle flight. The STS platform is being retired, and the Americans stepping back from human spaceflight. Perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. American astronauts will still journey to the International Space Station, but they will do so inside Russian Soyuz capsules, a technology that has remained essentially unchanged since its conception in the 1960s.

America has neither the hope nor the imagination to reach further than the ISS, nor the resolve to do it on their own terms. So they will borrow another nation’s technology, and one that the Space Shuttle made look obsolete over 30 years ago. That is the legacy of Challenger. And that is why we should mourn her memory, and that of those who flew on her.

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