Thirty years later: Don’t forget about the Challenger

The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger. (AP. Photo)
The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger. (AP. Photo)

By Tom Ballard
Opinions Editor

Between the stress of starting a new semester and the havoc caused by Winter Storm Jonas, it was easy to forget that it was also the anniversary of one of the saddest days in U.S. aeronautical history: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 10 miles up in the air, killing all seven crew members on board. According to a New York Times article from Thursday, Jan. 28, that marked the 30th anniversary of the disaster, there was evidence of erosion on the O-ring seals on one of the rocket boosters. The O-ring seals served as seals that connected joints in the rocket boosters that were meant to prevent leaks between the compartments. The failed seal allowed a stream of hot gas to be released and ignited an external fuel tank. The unusually cold temperatures of the day is said to have possibly contributed to worsening the condition of the seals.

Engineers from the company that produced the rockets actually gave a warning about the cold weather to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) the night before the space shuttle was set to lift off.

“The recommendation was that we wait until it’s 54 degrees before we launch,” Larry Mulloy, then-NASA project manager, said in a 2014 video from Retro Report, a video producer that makes short documentaries for the New York Times. According to a New York Times article that was published a day after the explosion, the temperature at the time of the launch “hovered in the low 20s.”

Recently, National Public Radio (NPR) caught up with Bob Ebeling, one of the five engineers who warned NASA a night before the scheduled lift-off to stop the launch. Three weeks after the disaster, Ebeling was one of two engineers to anonymously give NPR a detailed account of the hours leading up to the launch.

Christa McAuliffe was a high school social studies teacher from Concord, N.H. (AP Photo)
Christa McAuliffe was a high school social studies teacher from Concord, N.H. (AP Photo)

“I was one of the few that was really close to the situation… had (NASA) listened to me and wait(ed) for a weather change, it might have been a completely different outcome,” Ebeling said in an interview with NPR, allowing the media organization to release his identity 30 years after the disaster.

It is important that we remember the seven crew members of the Challenger: Lt. Col. Ellison S. Onizuka, Cmdr. Michael J. Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Francis R. Scobee, Gregory B. Jarvis, Ronald E. McNair and Judith A. Resnik. They were our fellow Americans — McAuliffe, in particular, was an ordinary citizen. She was a high school social studies teacher from Concord, N.H., who won a nationwide competition to become the first ordinary American citizen to be sent into space. They reached for the stars, and now, as the result of preventable tragedy, as the saying goes, they belong to the ages.

I do not believe there is any better line to sum up the sacrifices of the crew members than when President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation from the Oval Office about the Challenger explosion. He used lines from American pilot John Gillespie MaGee’s poem, “High Flight.”

“I have slipped the surly bonds of the earth,’” Reagan quoted, “and touched the face of God.”

As for Ebeling, he still blames himself for playing a role in the disaster.

“I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,” Ebeling said in the same NPR report. “He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me? You picked a loser.’”

Ebeling, you tried your best to prevent a preventable disaster. You are no loser. You are, like the seven crew members who lost their lives that day, a hero.