Friday, January 28, 2011
NASA's 25th Space Shuttle mission - STS-51-L - had been eagerly anticipated, since it was to be the first one to carry a civilian, thanks to the efforts of the Teacher in Space Project. Although less than five years old (the first was launched in April 1981) the Space Shuttle program, like many modern marvels, was already being greeted with a blasé reaction from the public; the inclusion of New Hampshire high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, though, ensured that classrooms around the world were eagerly tuned in on this day in 1986 to watch as 73 seconds in - at 11:39 AM EST - the craft disintegrated...
All seven crew members - Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik and McAuliffe herself - died; there is some evidence that Smith knew something was happening (on recordings he can be heard to say 'Uh oh') but he may have been reacting to the loss of pressure in the fuel tank. There is also evidence that not all of the astronauts died instantly, although at an altitude of 14.6 km they would have certainly lost consciousness within seconds.
It's one moment most Gen-Xers share (not unlike the Kennedy Assassination for the previous generation); we all remember where we were when we heard it'd happened. I was in school (of course) about halfway through lunch, when I noticed a few of the girls crying; I asked what was the matter and that's when I heard the terrible news.
It was also one of the defining moments for the relatively new network CNN, and for those of us who didn't see it live we saw it there hundreds of times over the next couple of weeks, as officials gradually came to the conclusion that faulty O-rings had been to blame. That so much complex and expensive technology could be destroyed by its most low-tech component should be a valuable lesson for us all, a humbling reminder in the face of our collective hubris that we are not even a fraction as mighty as we may think we are.
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