January 29, 2006
Twenty Years Ago
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Twenty years ago today, I had a class at the Computer Senmon Gakkou school in Toyama. I recall coming into the front office for the school, out of the snow. The staff there was excited, and asked if I'd heard the news. What news? They pointed to the TV mounted from the ceiling, where the news was playing. Very soon, they showed the clips available at the time, of the space shuttle Challenger blowing up. It was a devastating blow for me, as I had always been a fan of the space program. They showed it over and over again. Then I had to go to class.
I'm not one for conspiracy theories, usually. But I am not one to dismiss them out of hand, either. From the evidence out there, I believe that Flight 93 was shot down and a panicked Bush administration didn't want to admit it. I don't believe, however, that Bush or his people knowingly manufactured 9/11. If the evidence is strong enough or compelling enough, then I'll give credence to a theory, and will not allow fear of ridicule or popular disbelief sway me.
The Challenger disaster has always been a matter of suspicion for me. Before the shuttle lifted off, engineers from Morton Thiokol, the company that made the twin boosters on either side of the main fuel tank (the big orange tank the shuttle rides on), warned that the cold temperatures could lead to the erosion of the O-rings holding the booster segments together. If the O-rings went, the shuttle would explode. NASA officials dismissed the warnings and went ahead with the launch.
The question is, why did they do that? NASA has been famous for canceling launches at the drop of a hat. Now they were receiving warnings that the shuttle might explode (in fact, Rockwell engineers also warned about ice damage to the orbiter), and they dismissed them? Mainstream reports hold that NASA had been embarrassed by delays and cancellations in 1985, and that was what compelled them to override safety concerns and launch anyway. However, I don't fully buy that; it's out of character with NASA protocols and past actions. And there is an alternate explanation which makes much more sense.
Politics has always influenced the space program. Presidents and other politicians, though disdainful of the money spent and often ignorant of the commercial value of the space program, are always instantly ready to bask in its light and use it to their political advantage. The selection of Morton Thiokol and the segmented booster design, in fact, was influenced by Thiokol being based in Utah, the home state of the senator in charge of the committee which made the decision to buy.
But the major political influence of that day was the fact that President Reagan was set to make his State of the Union address just hours after the launch, and boast about how we had just sent a schoolteacher into space. That administration was famously known for its love of theater and backdrop, and was intensely committed to playing up such drama to the hilt. Education was to be featured in the address, a schoolteacher was on the flight, and already NASA had pushed back the launch by a week. The week-long space flight was originally scheduled to be ending just as Reagan gave his address. Another delay, and Reagan would not be able to use the majestic flight and historic teacher-in-space to his political advantage. The wording from the address that he was scripted to use was this:
Tonight while I am speaking to you, a young secondary school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, is taking us all on the ultimate field trip, as she orbits the earth as the first citizen-passenger on the space shuttle.Adding to the legitimacy of administration pressure to lift off on Tuesday was the abortive flight cancellation the previous weekend. Challenger was schedule to take off on Sunday. Usually, because weather at the Cape is so volatile, the shuttle would be fueled up and the astronauts would board and the decision to launch would be made at the last minute. However, on Saturday night, bad weather was predicted for the next day, and NASA made an uncharacteristic decision to cancel the night before. The reason: if the launch was scrubbed on Sunday, then the unloading of fuel from the shuttle would mean they could not try again until Wednesday--which would be too late for Reagan's address. The fact that NASA cancelled early is a persuasive indication that the State of the Union address was a strong factor in the decision to launch.
Christa McAuliffe's journey is a prelude to the journeys of other Americans and our friends around the world who will be living and working together in the permanently manned space station in the mid-1990s, bringing a rich return of scientific, technical, and economic benefits to mankind.
Mrs. McAuliffe's week in space is just one of the achievements in space which we have planned for the coming year.
Tragically, Sunday's weather was perfect, and had it lifted off then, Challenger would most likely have been safe. Instead, it was delayed until Tuesday. There was pressure from the engineers to scrub. There was pressure from the top to go. The question is, did the pressure from the top come from NASA, which was predisposed to safety? Or did it come from the White House, with Reagan chief of staff Donald Regan reportedly demanding, "Tell them to get that thing up!"
Unless someone makes a deathbed confession, we'll probably never know. But I do know which is more likely, and certainly which is much more in character.
Posted by: Paul at January 29, 2006 05:17 PM