Disillusioned: The Challenger Disaster at 30

Today is the 30th anniversary of the fatal, final flight of the space shuttle Challenger. To mark the occasion, I wanted to re-share a short essay I wrote in 2008 for Graham Gordon Ramsay's book A Creative Guide to Exploring Your Life: Self-Reflection Using Photography, Art, and Writing. The piece was republished in slightly different form at Xconomy in 2011. When the disaster unfolded, I was a 19-year-old freshman studying astronomy and physics at Harvard.  

The piece focuses on the disaster's personal meaning for me at the time. It shook me to the core, in the sense that it showed how casually I'd accepted the myth that space travel, in NASA's hands, had become routine and easy. In that sense it started me down the path of technology skepticism, one I've been walking ever since as a journalist and scholar.

But jaundice and enthusiasm claim equal parts of my soul. I'm still a big fan of space exploration, and I'm glad films like Gravity and The Martian are helping to rebuild a measure of public enthusiasm for science and engineering. Still, the Challenger accident taught us lessons about our fallibility and our limitations that we'd do well to remember.

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, was one of those horrifying public events, like Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination, that burned itself into the memories of millions of people. But it also changed my own life in unusually concrete ways. I was a freshman at Harvard College at the time and I remember hearing about the accident from another student who was sitting next to me as I worked on an assignment in the computer room at the university's science center. I didn't believe him at first. But he seemed serious enough to make me nervous.

This was long before the Web, so I couldn't simply log on and check the news. So I got up and charged back to my dorm room to turn on the TV. I remember thinking, as I ran through Harvard Yard, that it couldn't possibly be true. Didn't the engineers at NASA know enough to prevent such a disaster?  But sure enough, the images of the spaceship exploding in mid-sky, sending tendrils of smoke and flames in all directions, were all over the TV news.

Like many people that day, I spent hours watching the coverage unfold, including President Reagan's eloquent televised address (the only words of his I ever agreed with!). The horror of the event was immediate for me—it was awful to imagine what the seven astronauts aboard must have experienced as the shuttle broke up, and to realize what a huge setback the disaster was for the U.S. space program, which I had followed with zeal since I was a young boy.

But the disaster's real influence settled in only over the next several months, as the accident investigation proceeded and the chain of events that led to the explosion became clear. (A rubber O-ring in one of the solid rocket boosters, stiffened by that morning's cold weather, had failed, allowing flames to burst through, in turn causing the shuttle's main fuel tank to explode.) The accident seemed to have such an obvious and preventable cause that, for the first time in my life, I began to question NASA's competence. And on a larger level, I began to look at all technological and scientific endeavors with a much more skeptical—one might even say disillusioned and jaundiced—eye.

At the time, I happened to be in a work-study job with an X-ray astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Within days after the Challenger accident it was clear that the massive X-ray satellite that this astronomer had been helping to build, and which was scheduled to be launched on the space shuttle, would be delayed for years while NASA retrenched. This was a big professional and personal blow for him, and it affected the whole mood at the Center over the following months. This, in turn, contributed to my own growing disenchantment with the job and with my long-cherished idea of becoming an astronomer or astrophysicist. (But it must also be said that I wasn't terribly good at math, which would probably have derailed my plans eventually anyway!)

By the end of my sophomore year, less than a year and a half after the Challenger disaster, I had decided to switch majors from physics and astronomy to the history of science, a discipline where I was encouraged to think skeptically about ideas that I had previously accepted uncritically, such as "American know-how" and the inevitability of technological progress. Eventually I attended graduate school in the history of technology, wrote a doctoral thesis about the social and political effects of technological disasters, and became a technology journalist.

The Challenger explosion didn't set the whole course of my personal history, which, like anyone's, came together from many unpredictable strands. But it came at a critical moment when I was in the process of defining my own future and was (as 19-year-old should be) highly impressionable. I think of it as a key event in my own history as well as the nation's. And the whole moment is symbolized, for me, by the iconic TV images of the exploding shuttle, its twin boosters veering crazily off course like misdirected fireworks.

Wade Roush

Science and technology journalist