- A little more than a minute after Challenger was launched
at the Kennedy Space Center on a frigid winter morning 25 years ago, the
shuttle broke to pieces when an o-ring joint in one of the solid rocket
boosters failed, and the seven Challenger astronauts died.
- That 1986 Challenger launch was arguably the high water
mark of the U.S. manned space program. Through Mercury, Gemini and the
Apollo lunar exploration program, as well as numerous unmanned scientific
probes, we had boldly answered the call of space.
- There was no apparent limit to the adventure, sense of
national accomplishment and economic benefits space exploration could confer.
NASA and the White House intended the Teacher-in-Space and the proposed
Journalist-in-Space flights to convey that excitement to the world.
- But there were fatal compromises as well. Even though
the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 had created NASA for the
peaceful exploration of space, and mandated a separation between scientific
and military flights, the Nixon administration approved a design for a
space shuttle that would blur the lines.
- The shuttle was to be a "space truck" that
would be used for every conceivable scientific, commercial and military
purpose. By the time of the Reagan administration, the lines were confused
even further by decisions to use the shuttle as a test platform for weapons
testing under the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars"
- The investigations of the Challenger disaster exposed
an organizational culture at NASA so influenced by politics, schedule exigencies
and managerial careerism that it could never exert itself to the utmost
to protect the human lives at stake. When Columbia disintegrated on re-entry
in 2003, the investigative report was eerily similar.
- By then, however, the public had largely lost interest
in the manned space program, even as the private sector and the Russian
space agency were dabbling in space tourism, where curious millionaires
would be treated to a joy ride for astronomical fares.
- After 2011 there will be no more space shuttle. In a
stunning reversal, the massive Constellation return-to-the-moon program
embarked on by the George W. Bush presidency was excluded from President
Obama's 2011 budget and is likely slated for oblivion.
- There are few champions to defend Constellation other
than the military-industrial complex and their congressional allies, partly
because the ultimate goal of a manned journey to Mars has never seemed
realistic or worth the price. Constellation also bound NASA's future to
perpetuation of the primitive launch technology of explosive rocketry vs.
major investments in more exotic but benign systems like antigravity or
- Constellation - which former NASA Administrator Michael
Griffin unfortunately referred to as "Apollo on steroids" - was
also viewed by some critics as a thinly-disguised attempt to establish
lunar military bases as part of a latter-day space arms race.
- Is America lost in space? So it would seem. The heady
days of the U.S. manned space program may be history, as veterans of the
U.S. astronaut corps have gone public to point out. From a long-term historical
perspective, the Challenger disaster may someday be viewed as the beginning
of that decline.
- Has America forgotten its aspiration to become a space-faring
nation? Can those days be brought back by a country that has given away
its manufacturing prowess to foreign competitors like China, and that has
been devastated by two decades of economic turmoil?
- Only time will tell. One thing is certain: A new vision
of the place of mankind in the immensity of space is sorely needed.
- Richard C. Cook is a former NASA budget analyst who,
in 1985, warned the agency that problems with the O-ring seals in solid
rocket boosters could cause a "catastrophic" failure during launch.
After the Challenger disaster, he leaked those documents to The New York
Times, which became a turning point in the accident investigation. Cook
is an author and consultant living in Roanoke, Va. His book "Challenger
Revealed" was published in 2007.