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"Obviously a major malfunction."
May 2, 2012 2:41 AM   Subscribe

Chilling amateur home video of the Challenger disaster "Obviously a major malfunction." Those words have always haunted me, but to hear them here, echoing across a PA system as shocked onlookers come to terms with what they have just seen, they carry even more power than they did when they were just an anonymous voiceover on a TV shot.
posted by LondonYank (107 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Happened on my very first trip to Japan. Saw the footage over and over on Japanese TV. Terrible.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:11 AM on May 2, 2012


Very eerie watching the vapour trail.

'90's Australian Indie rock band Ratcat used the voicever to great effect in their song "Getting away from this world". I'm not sure if it's his voice catching or an audio glitch at 5:10 ("flight director confirms"), but it's always seemed like such a poignant moment - a moment of humanity breaking through his professionalism.
posted by robotot at 3:13 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


keith leblanc - major malfunction
posted by the bricabrac man at 3:48 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


It sort of sounds like these people knew Christa McAuliffe.
posted by Optamystic at 4:05 AM on May 2, 2012


This is one of those things, like the film of the planes flying into the World Trade Center, that I have seen more than enough times for one lifetime. Maybe it's just me, but there's no desire to see it again, from any perspective.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:10 AM on May 2, 2012 [19 favorites]


It doesn't matter how many times I see this: my heart is always in my throat when I watch that lift-off.
posted by sundaydriver at 4:17 AM on May 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Gwar sampled "Obviously a major malfunction" on the title track for America Must Be Destroyed.
posted by Renoroc at 4:24 AM on May 2, 2012


My dad was a high school science teacher and was nominated by his students to be part of the Challenger mission. He had a heart condition that disqualified him in the early rounds, but I remember watching this live in high school (it was my senior year) and just before lift-off, thinking, "Dad would have loved to do this," and then watching in horror as the pieces of the vessel that carried another young teacher (and all the others) exploded in the sky.

Dad died that same year, of the aforementioned heart condition (he was only 46) and, knowing him, he probably would have preferred going out on a mission that his students had sent him on.
posted by xingcat at 4:40 AM on May 2, 2012 [35 favorites]


I'd read that the O-rings did not work due to the low temperature that day. The one person making a comment about how cold it was was very eerie and sad as a result.
posted by scunning at 4:41 AM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


This poor little old lady's reaction before the explosion is so childlike. And I mean that in a nice way. I wish everyone could be so excited about the space program.
posted by Brodiggitty at 4:43 AM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was in junior high when this happened. The whole school had stopped to watch the shuttle go up on our classroom TV's. It's one of the sharpest memories of my childhood.

It still takes my breath away.

I think in a very real way the Challenger accident had more of an impact on me (and Gen X) than the bombing of the Trade Center.
posted by oddman at 4:57 AM on May 2, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'd read that the O-rings did not work due to the low temperature that day.

That's one of the proximate causes. Another was that NASA had already seen erosion in the joint and did nothing about it. They decided that since the backup held, the primary O-ring burning through wasn't an issue.

This directly violated their own rules on Criticality 1 components. Criticality 1 components are those that cannot be allowed to fail, because if they do, the likely result is a LOCV Accident -- Loss of Crew and Vehicle. Criticality 1 components were not allowed to rely on backups. They would have backups if they could, because of the huge risk cost, but the *primary* component had to be reliable, and if there was a case of it failing to the backup, that component needed to be redesigned.

Instead, NASA went on a spree of what Sally Ride called "Normalization of Risk." The ring had burned through before, and we didn't lose an orbiter, so obviously, a little burn through was OK.

Then, we combine that -- a joint that knowingly doesn't meet specs, with weather that was out of tolerance for that joint, making the O-rings stiffer and a *huge* push to get the launch rate up, and we get STS-51L.

After that, they redesigned the joint, and the SRB has been perfect since then. Of course, NASA later decided that foam just occasionally fell off an hit the orbiter on launch, and the orbiter never broke, so obviously a little foam shedding was okay....

When one failure can easily kill you, and when you're working in an environment that undergoes the sort of stresses a manned spacecraft launching and landing on Earth does, "a little X" is the kind of thing that you cannot ignore -- and yet, when you've launched a few dozen times, it becomes very easy to think that what you are doing is routine. Spaceflight is anything but right now. 6 launches a year is not routine. 6 ORD-STL turns a day is routine.
posted by eriko at 5:13 AM on May 2, 2012 [31 favorites]


That is really chilling. Thanks for posting.
posted by etaoin at 5:13 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


. . . . . . .
posted by nzero at 5:19 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm with Kirth Gerson, no desire to see this again. I watched it over and over on CNN on that day and that was enough.
posted by octothorpe at 5:22 AM on May 2, 2012


I had an friend who worked for the booster contractor Morton Thiakal who suggested that some of the engineers didn't have faith in launching in those conditions, but were overridden on that decision. Its second hand, but not a nice thought. I think this guy might have worked on both shuttle missions that went wrong, which must have been upsetting.
posted by C.A.S. at 5:25 AM on May 2, 2012


Ethical Decisions - Morton Thiokol and the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
Was Space Shuttle Challenger a Casualty of Bad Data Visualization?
Representation and Misrepresentation: Tufte and the Morton Thiokol Engineers on the Challenger
posted by zamboni at 5:31 AM on May 2, 2012


C.A.S.-

We studied the Challenger disaster in a class on ethics and complex systems in college. The evidence overwhelmingly supports the notion that there were strong objections raised to launching the Challenger by the Thiokol engineers, objections that were overruled by NASA and their own management.

-On preview, what zamboni said.
posted by nzero at 5:35 AM on May 2, 2012


That woman's narration is absolutely heartbreaking. She goes from such enthusiasm and elation, to disappointment that "they're coming back" (probably thinking they had aborted the mission) Then eventually, channeling Jim McKay's ever-poignant "They're all gone."

Terribly heartbreaking, but very much worth watching.
posted by ShutterBun at 5:37 AM on May 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


It sort of sounds like these people knew Christa McAuliffe.

Maybe, but the entire country "knew" McAuliffe. There was a huge amount of publicity about the teacher going into space leading up to this event. Her classroom filled with her students watched this happen live.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 5:38 AM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


The live coverage of this on cable was not the way it appeared on the evening news, where what we see here cut directly to a shot of boats going to the water impact site.

There was footage in between, while the boats kept their distance, and debris kept falling for what seemed to be about an hour. A very long hour.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:41 AM on May 2, 2012


True, but the people in the video called her "our Christa" and, more often, "Chris." The nickname suggests a more significant relationship. (although according to the article, it seems that it was more a combination of her career as a school nurse, and the couple's enthusiasm for Shuttle Launches)
posted by ShutterBun at 5:43 AM on May 2, 2012


I was a bit young to keep up with the various hearings and investigations in the aftermath of the disaster. Re-reading the material as an adult (and Feynman's stuff in particular) is always a sobering experience.
posted by jquinby at 5:44 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was in the fourth grade when this happened. We watched this on a television in the classroom, as did everyone else in the school. The thing I remember is the moment when most of us were sitting the in sort of mute, uncomprehending shock and this one girl, Anna, started crying. And she cried so hard so long that it was uncomfortable. And when the teacher went to comfort the now almost hysterical girl, I noticed that the teacher was crying too. The rest of us stayed quiet. That's what I mostly remember: the quiet.
posted by thivaia at 5:55 AM on May 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


My friend who lived next door came running over to bang on my door, yelling that the space shuttle had exploded. We must have sat and watched replays for four hours. The teacher going into space had been hyped in my school (and probably most schools in the country) for months beforehand, so it was a flight that I was far more aware of than a normal shuttle flight.

I can remember adults crying, but not anyone my own age.
posted by Forktine at 6:00 AM on May 2, 2012


I remember watching the launch with my sister and our next-door neighbor friends at their house. When the shuttle exploded, we just looked at each other. I don't remember anyone crying. I remember feeling confused, but not sad. I thought space shuttles went up and came back down, just like airplanes. It never occurred to me that something could go wrong, especially with a teacher on board. Teachers never let bad things happen.
posted by epj at 6:09 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is, I believe, only the third known video of the Challenger explosion. The first one, is obviously, the official news footage that everyone has seen. The second one was this video that was uncovered in early 2010.
posted by Plutor at 6:11 AM on May 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


My mistake, there's also this video from another NASA camera.
posted by Plutor at 6:14 AM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


My generation dreamed of landing on the moon, of flying through space. That day the dream ended.
posted by tommasz at 6:17 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow.

I was in Florida then, not too far away, in the first grade. Normally for shuttle launches, they'd take us all out to watch. Since this mission had a teacher on it, it was more of a big deal than most.

It looked a lot like this from our viewpoint, a little smaller since we were a little farther away, and at a different angle. I didn't even have to watch the second half of the video since it is so burned into my mind, that lone SRB spiraling off. As soon as it happened, I knew something had gone terribly wrong. One of the teachers watching it on TV inside came running out, crying. I'm not sure what happened afterwards, I think we all got sent home early. It seems like yesterday.

Many years later, I was in a hotel room in New Jersey right on the Hudson river. I had to go to a training class for my job, and it started late, so I got to sleep in. I'd set the alarm on the television to wake me up to CNN; it turned on to a burning building. I ran over to the window to see the plane fly right into the second WTC tower.

This video, and there's another one of 9/11 shot from I think the Brooklyn Bridge looks very much like what I saw, triggers all those old feelings.

I envy you all, those who got to only see these things on television. I guess I'm very unique in that I was an eyewitness to two of the worst national tragedies to ever happen, but these sights will continue to haunt me for the rest of my life. Seeing something so horrible, right in front of you, being completely and utterly useless to help or do anything. And distinctly knowing, right away, that everything will be different now. Fuck.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 6:25 AM on May 2, 2012 [39 favorites]


NASA overruled what the experts said. Isn't that always the way with EVERY disaster? I will never understand why companies hire the best only to overrule them due to money and ego.
posted by stormpooper at 6:26 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the great post. I am in tears.
posted by jfwlucy at 6:27 AM on May 2, 2012


Oooof. Knowing what happens... the higher the shuttle gets, the more excited the "GO, CHRIS!" the harder the knot twists in my stomach.
posted by sonika at 6:29 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I guess my fourth grade head thought "well, you got on a huge fireball and tried to go to outer space".

I mean, I LOVE space flight, and it struck me as sad, but yet I think I understood the concept of the noble death and sacrifice that comes when a species does what we do.

But the fucking asshole kid who laughed and said "awesome" while the rest of the class sat there stunned. That's what the phrase "christ what an asshole" is for.

But the again, I participated in the gallows humor to come in the weeks ahead, so who the hell am I to pretend to be so moral.

I guess I have some resolvin' still to do. Thanks for this London Yank.
posted by roboton666 at 6:29 AM on May 2, 2012


My first memory is of the Challenger disaster. I don't know if my brother and I were there to see it as it it happened live on television (he was 2 and I was 1 and a half) but I imagine we were.

I don't remember the actual day of the launch. But my parents, like many people I'm sure, had been taping it and that VHS tape was soon recorded over with some kid movies and put back into circulation. So every time we watched Pete's Dragon, because of some gap in the recording, the screen would show a few seconds worth of that characteristic smoke plume. I was probably about 2 and a half and may have seen it countless times before, but I announced (excited because I'd figured it out, or because I could express it?) to my parents that it was a bunny rabbit, and I just remember how quiet it was and the looks on their faces. And I remember knowing it was something bad but I couldn't understand. Because, you know. What's wrong with a bunny rabbit.

Anyway. Senior year of high school the 9/11 attacks happened. I was listening to the radio on the way to school, when people were still thinking it was a fluke, before the second plane hit. I was still listening just before class started when the second hit. I spent a lot of the day in the library watching the news and being numb. Later, I watched The Daily Show, and that episode has since become an integral part of my memory of the day.

Somehow, it wasn't until I was in college a couple of years later that I saw a picture of the Challenger explosion and recognized it for what it was. It was the same feeling I did on 9/11 but 20 years misplaced. The collective tragedy of it was still something you could see in the news cast and in a strange way it made me feel better. Like I still had a place in the tragedy somehow, even though I'd misidentified it for years, and that I still had some legitimacy mourning, I guess, even though I'd never paid it the proper respect before.

I don't know what it says about me that I watch these videos fairly frequently, maybe once a year, never intentionally and never on an anniversary. There have been a lot of Challenger videos showing up lately to keep reminding me, and I watch every one, and I still can't really articulate much about them. Most have that same feeling of slow realization in them. Somehow this one feels more poignant than many of them for the official announcements echoing out and the woman who lamenting on 'all of the children seeing this'. This one's a whole little story unto itself.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 6:43 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


And distinctly knowing, right away, that everything will be different now. Fuck.
posted by Threeway Handshake


I hate that feeling so fucking much. Ugh. I have a knot in my stomach now just thinking about it.
posted by lazaruslong at 6:48 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is one of those 'where were you' moments. I saw this for the first time, at the time, when I walked into a Comet (a UK version of Best Buy) and there was a whole wall of TVs replaying the same clip over and over.

I can't watch this again.
posted by carter at 6:51 AM on May 2, 2012


I had the tv off that day. My husband worked third shift at the time and I had an obgyn appointment, being pregnant with my second child.

Got to the waiting room and it was eerily quiet, even though it was full, and a tv was on in the corner, volume low. They kept showing pictures of the astronauts. I leaned over and asked my neighbor what had happened, and she told me.


My husband had been a research subject for NASA, and loved the space program deeply. I tried calling home but had forgotten I had pulled the plug on the phone. He was asleep. Third shift job sleep schedule.

When I went home, I woke him and told him. He told me to quit joking.


And then I turned on the television.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:54 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Richard Feynman on the Space Shuttle Challenger Investigation
posted by Omon Ra at 7:10 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was in Down East Maine, visiting my stepfather. My natural father had been an engineer on the early space missions- Mercury, Friendship, Gemini- and I always had a keen interest in space exploration, shared by my stepfather. I distinctly remember that we had been discussing the loss of human lifeand how fortunate that there had been so few lives lost in comparison to the achievements.
We sat down to watch the launch and I could just tell something wasn't right. The ship seemed to hesitate, somehow, and then the explosion.
posted by pentagoet at 7:10 AM on May 2, 2012


I was in 9th grade Biology class. An announcement came over the school's PA system. The silence afterwards... I never felt anything quite the same again (the sense of sudden, collective grief) until 9-11.
posted by mkweiss at 7:22 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]



My mom often let me stay home from school to watch shuttle launches, if she felt there was a good chance it would go.

She made me go to school that day, if it was chilly in Florida, it was cold as fuck in Minnesota. I was annoyed, but felt that, yeah, she was probably right. Still, I snuck off during my study hall to watch the launch in an empty classroom. I had seen 20 or so launches by then; when it exploded I knew right away it wasn't good.

I was late to my next class, and the teacher said I was lying about where I was and what I had seen. Jerk.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:25 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Terrible, terrible. To know the love the "Greatest Generation" has for the space program, and how these people in particular had an excess of love for it. Breaks your heart. But I like how, at the end, she says an impromptu prayer for their souls.
posted by resurrexit at 7:28 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was in kindergarten. It was snack time, and we were watching the liftoff on TV. I remember seeing the initial explosion and thinking something bad had happened, but nobody else reacted to it. The teachers didn't say anything. I'm not sure if they realized what happened and were in shock, or if they thought the explosion was the boosters detaching. It seemed to be a minute or so before everyone understood what happened and they switched the TV off. They must have set something to us at that point, but I don't remember it.
posted by Rangeboy at 7:29 AM on May 2, 2012


***must have said something to us, rather.***
posted by Rangeboy at 7:29 AM on May 2, 2012


I was in, I don't know, second or third grade? We all trekked down to the library to sit cross-legged on the institutional carpet and watch it on TV. I believe it was the first launch I'd ever seen live, we knew all about McAuliffe, and I remember watching it, and seeing the explosion. I can still see it in my mind's eye, with rows of little kid heads in front of it and the knot of smoke and falling-star vapor trails on a CRT television on one of those school TV carts. There was a long silence, and then the teachers took us back to our classrooms very soberly.

I don't remember if they told us what had happened at the time (I expect they probably did? But my memory is of the vivid moment of seeing it, and much fuzzier on the before and after ... I remember silence, and then I remember being in the hallway going back to class a little later) but I do remember I knew certainly by that evening at home.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:29 AM on May 2, 2012


The thing that struck me about this particular video was very early on when one woman says "That teacher's gonna go!" and the other says "She better go."
That illustrated the public's frustration surrounding this mission, which had suffered three scrubbed launch attempts over the previous four days. The pressure on NASA to avoid another delay was growing, and as we all know, contributed to the disaster.
posted by rocket88 at 7:33 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I grew up in Brevard county, and was on lunch break at high school when this happened. Not much to say, really - I was a sullen teenager and we were all sort of jaded with the launches by that point. Of course there was the requisite drama and yes - every school had one - the asshole who shouted "I did it!" It was bitterly cold for Florida, that morning.

The economic impact of shutting the program down after Challenger really hit the "Space Coast" hard. My town went from "upwardly mobile" to scary redneck ghetto almost overnight. I'm not sure that area ever fully recovered, even when they resumed the program.

Thankfully I escaped. I can't imagine what Brevard is like these days.
posted by entire_owl at 7:34 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was passed out drunk in a London council flat and didn't even hear about it until the next day, when I didn't much care either. Just as many people died in highway accidents in the same hour.

So there's that.
posted by spitbull at 7:35 AM on May 2, 2012


Say what you will about the man's presidency, but Ronald Reagan sure could deliver a speech. Here he is addressing the nation on the night of the disaster.
posted by Optamystic at 7:38 AM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


I couldn't watch the whole thing. Like a lot of y'all, I was watching in my elementary school classroom that day and have the iconic tv footage burned in my mind permanently. This was so much worse, especially with that poor lady narrating.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:42 AM on May 2, 2012


I was home sick from school that day. Fifth grade. My little sister would be born four months later. I was one of those kids with a television in my room, even then, and I remember watching a breaking news bulletin on whatever channel I had been watching. I yelled downstairs to my mom about how the Challenger had blown up, and she didn't believe me at first. But she came up to my room to see what I was talking about.

I seem to remember a local connection to one of the astronauts, Judy Resnick. I think her nephew was a student at my school or something like that.
posted by emelenjr at 7:50 AM on May 2, 2012


Richard Feynman. My fucking hero. Can I borrow your razor, Mr. Occam?
posted by Trochanter at 7:54 AM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


We could see the Shuttle launches from my office in Tampa when it was a clear day, and it was. We'd watch the liftoff on the TV and then go outside to watch it rise above the horizon. I was standing in front of the building watching it as it rose, and then there was an odd flash and then that weird Y-shaped vapor trail. We'd all seen enough of them to know that just wasn't right.

Then, of course we went back in to see what had happened...
posted by lordrunningclam at 8:02 AM on May 2, 2012


You can all visit the Christa McAuliffe planetarium the next time you're in her hometown of Concord, New Hampshire! Let's keep learning about space science, everybody!
posted by Greg Nog at 8:02 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sixth grade. Got sent home from school after it happened (stupid). I was a latchkey kid, so I turned on the TV when I got home (stupid) and watched it over and over (stupid).

Interesting that so many of us posting here were in elementary school. I wonder if it made a bigger impact on us and that's why there are less people saying "I was 25 when this happened..."
posted by desjardins at 8:03 AM on May 2, 2012


Fifth grade. I had to stop playing King's Quest on a PCjr and they made us all watch the launch on TV... I remember getting home that night and thinking "Why do they have to play it over, and over, and over?"

I had the same thought with the WTC plane crash footage in 2001.
posted by mrbill at 8:04 AM on May 2, 2012


I was still 5 months away from being born when the disaster happened. Growing up in Massachusetts I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Christa McAuliffe Center at Framingham State University on a field trip. If you've never heard of the center its a full scale Mission Control and Space center and you take turns conducting experiments in space, controlling rovers or working in mission control preparing for launches or landings. I remember controlling a rover on the Moon (now changed to Mars) and then checking computer systems before the launch happened. It was a great place to learn about all the work that went into it and what actually happened when the astronauts made it into space. I really wish it was open to the public so I could go back there.
posted by lilkeith07 at 8:05 AM on May 2, 2012


John Kennedy Assasination, Bobby Kennedy shot, Moon Landing, First LSD trip, John Lennon killed,Mt. Saint Helens goes up, my marriage, the birth of my son, Challenger Disaster, World Trade Center the memories of where you where you were when life changed for you. Life is made up of thousands of memories but some touch you deeper you will always remember where you were and what you were doing.
posted by pdxpogo at 8:08 AM on May 2, 2012


the people in the video called her "our Christa" and, more often, "Chris." The nickname suggests a more significant relationship.

Not necessarily. I don't know, maybe these people did know her, but from the video it sounds to me like they were just enthusiastic fans. You can find that type of attitude in all kinds of different fan groups, and it was definitely true of the Space Shuttle program then. People were excited.
posted by cribcage at 8:09 AM on May 2, 2012


I was a senior in high school. I wouldn't say my reaction was jaded, but I didn't get very upset. I knew enough about the likelihood of failure in such a launch that I wasn't overly emotional. Every one of the folk on that mission knew the possibilities and had decided it was worth the risks. The real tragedy is that an administrator played fast and loose with the risk assessment in the interest of politics and PR.

We could sit around the house all day and worry about the possibility of dying. Hell, we're more likely to die in our bathroom than anywhere else. We take risks every day because it's worth it to go live a life despite how fragile our physical being reallyis (whether we admit it or not). Every generation needs a reminder of how temporal our existence on this planet is.
posted by sciencejock at 8:12 AM on May 2, 2012


Not sure about that, desjardins. I was just thinking this over. I was a freshman in college in Rochester, New York, so was 18/19. I remember all the aborted launch attempts - some while I was home over Christmas break. I remember the night before one of them (maybe even the fatal one) listening to the local radio station play space-themed music in anticipation of the launch. What I remember hearing now: Space Oddity (Major Tom), by David Bowie, as well as Peter Schilling's 80s techno version "Major Tom (Coming Home)".

The next day, in between classes. Trying to get into the student union for a snack. Using the entryway which led to the TV lounge with two TVs (do those even exist on college campuses any more?) and unable to get down the hallway due to the throng of people - nothing but quiet whispering.

Burned into my memory...

Back at ground control, there is a problem
Go to rockets full, not responding
Hello Major Tom, are you receiving
Turn the thrusters on, we're standing by
There is no reply

posted by scolbath at 8:12 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Interesting that so many of us posting here were in elementary school. I wonder if it made a bigger impact on us and that's why there are less people saying "I was 25 when this happened..."

I was 14, and for some reason our school didn't take time out to let us watch the launch, so I only learned of it when, during lunch, an announcement over the intercom ushered us back to homeroom. There, our teacher told us what had happened. We weren't sent home, either, so I didn't witness the event until it appeared on the evening news.

Despite this, it was an event that really shook me, because my teacher, Mr. Gonzales, was crying. I had once seen Mr. Gonzales disarm a knife-wielding student. He had broken up more fights than I can remember. He had a no-bullshit teaching style that was more like drill instructor than educator. That this brick wall of a man was in tears, struggling to maintain his composure as he told us what had happened, really struck me hard. It was one of those moments where the impact a disaster had on other people added to the impact it had on me.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:13 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I remember sitting around with my friends about a week before the disaster talking about dreams we had. I said: "Last night I dreamed that the shuttle exploded and the teacher died". And then it did. I have no special powers. It just emphasizes how much press this particular shuttle mission received because of the teacher on board. That...and the visceral fear we have whenever we rely on technology to do dangerous things.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:20 AM on May 2, 2012


less people saying "I was 25 when this happened..."

I was in college. I was just clocking out from my day job, when one of the assistant managers hung up the phone and said, "the space shuttle just disintegrated".

We watched footage for a little bit when we got back, got ready and went to classes. We watched news coverage in the cafeteria during breaks.

But, yeah, I guess it didn't really affect me that much. It was a shame but that was the risk of the space program. It wasn't even in the same ballpark as watching those towers fall.
posted by Bonzai at 8:23 AM on May 2, 2012


I always feel a little left out--I was only 4 when it happened, so wasn't in school, don't remember anything about it. September 11 was the thing I remember crystal clear (because I was in college, had been in a lecture in a small classroom on the edge of campus all morning and no one bothered to tell us, so when we got out midday it was creepy as fuck because the streets were deserted in a 28 Days Later, nothing but refuse blowing around and complete silence sort of way), but that didn't have the impact it seemed to have for people younger than I was. I always wonder about that, what desjardins is saying--how if you're a certain impressionable and hyperaware age these sorts of national tragedies feel definitive. I didn't really have anything like that, being between the two events. It's always interesting to hear people the right age talk about that stuff.
posted by ifjuly at 8:28 AM on May 2, 2012


I was in college when the towers fell. That definitely affected me more because of the fear that we were all at risk. Challenger was horrible, but it wasn't like any one of us could be attacked and die.
posted by desjardins at 8:30 AM on May 2, 2012


Keith Leblanc - Major Malfunction
posted by philip-random at 8:39 AM on May 2, 2012


Say what you will about the man's presidency, but Ronald Reagan sure could deliver a speech.

One of the eerie things about listening to that now is to realise that the gap in time between Challenger and the Apollo-1 fire, which occurred before I was born and seemed impossibly remote to me, was smaller than the gap that separates us now from the Challenger disaster.
posted by chalkbored at 8:41 AM on May 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


I heard about the Challenger on morning radio, which thinking back on it was a jarring break from the wacky-morning-dj banter. (joke bit) (pause) "The space shuttle Challenger exploded..."

The last time I thought about the incident was in Las Vegas a few years ago, as I was browsing one of those Plunderer Pete's stores for lucky gamblers, and there was a four-digit-priced, framed and autographed group photo of the Challenger 7 on the wall. I've seldom seen anything so tastelessly ghoulish in my life, and I feel revulsion now just thinking about it.

I read this post on the front page, and I felt initially curious to watch, but reading the thread has made me certain I never need to see the footage again.

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posted by ipe at 8:49 AM on May 2, 2012


I actually found the coverage of what was to be Columbia's landing in 2003 to be emotionally harder. It was supposed to land, and it just didn't show up - then the wait for news about debris. Challenger was shocking, this was more.....just sickening.
posted by thelonius at 8:49 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting that so many of us posting here were in elementary school. I wonder if it made a bigger impact on us and that's why there are less people saying "I was 25 when this happened..."

I was twenty-six and I doubt most folks want to hear what my feelings were on the matter. Hint: beyond the obvious immediate shock and tragedy, it was akin to relief to finally see some/any mud in the eye of the Ronald Reagan's America and all the smug ugliness it was imposing on the world. Because, like they say, that guy was made of Teflon (and he still is apparently).

Can't say I'm proud of it now, politicizing the deaths of those involved. But it was a stark moment of realizing just how far my worldview had strayed from the norm.
posted by philip-random at 8:51 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was also not born yet, but I grew up in New Hampshire. All of my teachers in elementary school, and many of them in high school, knew Christa McAuliffe. Many of them had applied for the same program, and Mr. Lally (I think) was an alternate. The Challenger disaster was something that sort of loomed over us, especially when we went to the Christa McAuliffe planetarium in Concord (apparently now the McAuliffe-Shephard Discovery Center).

I do distinctly remember when Columbia blew up in 2003 - my dad was driving me home from teaching ballet, and we had NPR on, and I thought it was probably terrorists. How things change?
posted by ChuraChura at 8:52 AM on May 2, 2012


That video is so fascinating, frustrating and sorrowful. Sometimes I can watch and other times, like this morning, it's just unbearable to watch.

The fascination aspect comes from the what actually happened. Flames leaked through the broken O-ring seal, burning through the aft SRB attachment to the external tank. So the base of that SRB starts moving wildly, while the top part is still attached to the external tank. Eventually, that top of the SRB collides with the top of the external tank, rupturing it and causing its fuel to go everywhere. That's what a lot of people think was explosion, but not it was just ET breaking apart, and its fuel. The shuttle is thrown out aerodynamic alignment for lack of better term, meaning it is no longer moving sleekly through the air. The shuttle was designed to experience 5g, suddenly it was experiencing 20g and it just came apart.

Yet the crew cabin was still intact and that's the frustrating part. The damn thing was well built, but there was no escape from it. Every damn time I watch the video, I look for the crew cabin and wonder what they were thinking and experiencing. Reports say some of the seem to be conscious and the pilot appeared to trying to do something to regain control, probably not realizing it was futile or more likely not caring exactly. If you gotta go, then you go down swinging, no matter the odds.

I first heard about it as elementary school was letting. I was at the back of the bus, the very back school and I heard that asshole Scott Daniels say something about the Space Shuttle exploded. I didn't believe him, he was a loud mouth asshole and besides, Space Shuttles don't explode.

Afternoon cartoons were not watched that day.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:54 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have never seen any of these videos before. I had no idea just how... important it was to people.

Thank you for posting this. I have tears in my eyes.
posted by AmandaA at 9:05 AM on May 2, 2012


Freshman year, second period gym class. I recall the broken, horrified faces of the instructors. One of the first terrible flashbulb memories in a life that was destined to be chock full of 'em.
posted by porn in the woods at 9:06 AM on May 2, 2012


From the Feynman video Oman Ra posted above: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
posted by waraw at 9:16 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd never seen footage of what happened in the moments after the explosion and this was fascinating to me. What was it that the lady was talking about "parachute from the nose cone"? Watching the debris scatter over hundreds of miles of ocean -- it's absolutely astounding to me how they were able to piece together exactly what went wrong. I'm currently watching From the Earth to the Moon and one of the most interesting bits is the episode where they analyzed the Apollo 8 fire.

I'm finding root cause analysis fascinating, the latest in a series of self-realizations that I have become an old man.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:24 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, I was in school, fourth grade I think. Shock and sadness. The prinicipal got on the intercom and said some comforting words to 400 elementary school kids. He did the same when Reagan was shot. What a difficult and strange job, being a principal.

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posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:26 AM on May 2, 2012


I don't remember the actual day of the launch. But my parents, like many people I'm sure, had been taping it and that VHS tape was soon recorded over with some kid movies and put back into circulation.

Not many people would have been taping it. Only CNN carried the launch live (none of the major networks bothered--it really wasn't news any more; the Christa McAuliffe angle gave it a small bump, but the halo effect of the disaster has badly distorted all our memories of the lead up to the launch; the only reason NASA was taking McAuliffe in the first place was because the public at large had pretty much lost interest in the space program) and CNN was available in very few households at that time. It's true that a lot of kids got to see it in schools, because NASA paid for TVs to be provided to schools as part of their publicity campaign around McAuliffe. By no means all schools bothered to take NASA up on their offer, however.

I have never quite understood the "on this day everything changed" response to the Challenger disaster. Seven people died doing something inherently risky. It's certainly immensely sad for those who knew them and loved them, but the whole "a nation is in mourning tonight" response seems wildly overstated (you can guarantee that at least seven Americans will die on the roads today, and tomorrow, and the next day for no better or worse reasons than the Challenger crew). Had it been the very first fatal screw up by NASA ever I could see a certain "OMG, a highly trusted institution has been shown to be flawed" response--but A) that would clearly be a pretty naive response to a fuck-up by any human institution and B) NASA had already lost lives to entirely avoidable screw ups in the past.
posted by yoink at 9:34 AM on May 2, 2012


I was a freshman in medical school when it happened. I was born in the early 60's and followed the space program for as long as I can remember. Although I was well past the age group the teacher in space program was aimed at I was still excited about the thought of a more or less regular citizen going into space. We were in physiology class the morning of the launch, and just before our morning break one of our professors walked into class and announced that something had gone wrong with the space shuttle and they were trying to figure out what was going on. He might have even quoted the "major malfunction" announcement. At break we all streamed to various TVs around the building which by that time were all on CNN or headline news, and watched the explosion over and over. Our next lecturer made some announcement about praying for the crew, ad the rest of the day was pretty somber.

Watching the investigation unfold was fascinating and made a big impression on me. In college a couple of years earlier a friend had loaned me his copy of Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, so I was already a fan of his. It was good to see him on the national stage. As the details of how and why the disaster happened emerged I developed an ongoing fascination with how accidents happen and the human factors leading up to them. The Challenger explosion was the result of a series of missteps and multiple opportunities to halt the sequence of events leading up to the disaster were missed; this same scenario is played out in many other accidents and near-misses in any number of fields. Nuclear power, aviation, and medicine are among the many disciplines where this sort of thing has been well-documented. Consequently I have a low tolerance for cutting corners in the operating room. If something isn't right (a monitor isn't working, the patient has a lab result I don't understand, and so on) I will bring things to a halt until I get to the bottom of it. Anesthesia is very safe in large part due to a number of redundant systems to keep the patient safe; when you start chipping away at that redundancy the risk can go up dramatically. Just because you get away with proceding when things aren't just right once doesn't mean you will the next time. Unfortunately NASA didn't learn that lesson as well as I did, as the loss of the Challenger demonstrated.
posted by TedW at 9:34 AM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Er, loss of the Columbia...
posted by TedW at 9:35 AM on May 2, 2012


A few years ago I was speaking with my Aunt at Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' in Florida. She's in her early 70s and my Uncle had passed away not long before. I asked what she'd been up to lately and she said that she'd driven down to see a shuttle launch. She said that they, and now she, go to all of them, at least when she was in Florida. That made me realize what a huge deal the space program was to that generation of individuals. They saw it grow from nothing through monumental events to what it eventually became to my generation — somewhat routine. My cousins, ten years my senior, were always blasting off rockets with my Uncle. That day it made sense.

My own memory of that day, I was sitting in the family station wagon waiting for my sister and girlfriend to come out of the high school so we could go to my grandfather's funeral. I was driving and heard about it on the radio. Looking at the dates, I would have been 15, turning 16 a few weeks later in February. I would have taken driver's ed, and had a provisional license but not a full driver's license. I guess in the craziness of the day and my Mom's heartbreak at losing her father she just decided to let me take the car to get my sister and meet them at the funeral.
posted by MarvinTheCat at 9:40 AM on May 2, 2012


I'm currently watching From the Earth to the Moon and one of the most interesting bits is the episode where they analyzed the Apollo 8 fire.

It was Apollo 1. Check out the book the series was based on, much better.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:53 AM on May 2, 2012


this is first time I've seen any video of this. I was three at the time. back then, my twin sister was obsessed with the soundtrack from The Black Hole, and my mother had just put on the record when she heard the Challenger exploded.
she never played it again.
posted by changeling at 10:01 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Every time I watched a shuttle launch after Challenger, I held my breath at the 73-second mark. I was 11 in 1986, so the words "Go to throttle up" were burned in my memory. I would reflexively flinch at that moment every single time because there was always a small burst of flame that accompanied the increase in speed, and it was just too reminiscent of Challenger.

Anyone else have a similar experience afterward?

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posted by zooropa at 10:12 AM on May 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Something similar, zooropa.

I was 18, first year at university. Weirdly, I was talking across campus by a corner dedicated to two astronauts, one who died in Apollo 1. My feelings went through the usual gamut: confusion, disbelief, a sadness increasing in weight.

Many thanks for this achingly sad post.
posted by doctornemo at 10:20 AM on May 2, 2012


I was in high school, three months away from the pivotal moment when I would be expelled from school and set off to an adult life in the world, and we rolled the single TV our school owned (the entire student body of my school at the time was just thirty-three kids) into the science classroom/library to watch. It was sort of close, shocking, and unbelievable, despite the obvious risks involved anytime you strap people onto fireworks, and the eighties were already kind of a sad time for anyone with a heart or soul, what with lovable ol' Reagan shrugging away AIDS and two hundred years of American democracy, so it added up to a state of funk, at least for me.

I'd been born into the space age, and my youth was filled with the giddy gleeful future I found in stacks of Popular Mechanics magazines from the fifties and sixties that'd I'd buy for pennies at yard sales or dig out of the trash dumped in our neighborhood's collective annual spring cleanings. As a disaffected loner, I listened to the golden age sci-fi on the weekly "old time radio" show and reveled in books like The Martian Chronicles, a glorious paen to the magic of adjectives deployed without reservation that's one of my foundations as a writer, and if the real world wasn't so good, at least there was the future out there, waiting to pull us forward—

—and then it all just sort of went. The Moon receded into the past, unreachable by a country increasingly vocal about its natural superiority, and Skylab fell, bursting like a box kite made of gold foil and tinsel and settling over the Southern Hemisphere. We got our "space truck," but it was a mess of a thing, turned from a proper exercise in clever thinking into a monstrous disaster of committee-thinking design built by the lowest bidder and manipulated by the military for missions we weren't allowed to know about.

By the eighties, it was an established thing, and my Explorer Post, (#1275, based at nearby Goddard Space Flight Center), was the coordinating Post in Project Postar, a collection of shuttle-borne experiments using one of the "GAS Cans" (aka "Getaway Special" containers) that opened up space experimentation to organizations smaller than governments. We'd been scheduled for a subsequent mission, but the shuttle program went on hold and it wouldn't fly until STS-47, six years later.

In the moment, you're just sort of stunned, but in the aftermath, what struck me was the gloomy thought, still not entirely repudiated, that that moment, right then, is when humanity died. We'd go on, make great art and architecture and advance the cause of medicine and science, and one fine day, an untimely asteroid would wipe us all out because we'd lost our nerve to keep exploring, expanding into the solar system and making new worlds for ourselves. It's true today because we're on a planet that loves science fiction and lives it, with amazing information infrastructure tied together with a network of satellites, and yet we can't even get to the Moon anymore, despite the fact we'd done it once when our technology couldn't even produce a car that could reliably make it to a hundred thousand miles.

The smug modern response is to sneer and say "good riddance," and that the world will be better off without us, but I'm not in that snide mob of sanctimonious flagellants, keening over our failures while ignoring everything about us that is noble and wise and wonderful.

Seven people aren't a lot in the overall scheme of things. Seven people just plunged over a railing into the Bronx Zoo, but they'll be forgotten by this time next year by anyone who didn't know them. Our heroes get a little more of a respite, but they fade, too. When our optimism goes, though, and when we surrender to doubt—that's when we lose it all.
posted by sonascope at 10:22 AM on May 2, 2012 [11 favorites]


I was 14, and for some reason our school didn't take time out to let us watch the launch, so I only learned of it when, during lunch, an announcement over the intercom ushered us back to homeroom. There, our teacher told us what had happened. We weren't sent home, either, so I didn't witness the event until it appeared on the evening news.

Yeah, I was in sophomore latin class and it was business as usual. No TVs showing the event, just a intercom announcement that the space shuttle had 'blown up in mid air', followed by a quick rant by our elderly teacher that this was a sign we didn't belong in space and that this was a sign. It just didn't seem near the deal that it would have perhaps been if I had been in grade school at the time.
posted by justgary at 10:31 AM on May 2, 2012


When one failure can easily kill you, and when you're working in an environment that undergoes the sort of stresses a manned spacecraft launching and landing on Earth does, "a little X" is the kind of thing that you cannot ignore -- and yet, when you've launched a few dozen times, it becomes very easy to think that what you are doing is routine. Spaceflight is anything but right now. 6 launches a year is not routine. 6 ORD-STL turns a day is routine.
It doesn't need to be 'routine' - and I don't think NASA really took things to be routine after Challenger.

I was in kindergarten when this happened. I didn't see it on TV, but I remember kids talking about it. I was really interested in the stars, planets, astronomy. I remember at one point I had all the planets and their distances memorized or something like that.

but I have no prior memories of anything involving human space flight. I would imagine I was aware of it, but I don't remember thinking or knowing anything about it before the Challenger crash. I don't remember being bothered or upset about it, but it was just something I had been (as far as I know) unaware of and just hears about after the fact.

But anyway, the idea of human space flight never inspired me or made me think it was something special. It always seemed like kind of a routine thing and I always thought the space shuttle looked ridiculous. To me it's always just been a symbol of bad engineering due to self delusion and wishful thinking.

I'm still kind of surprised that people actually like the thing or feel like it's sad we're losing it. We should have replaced it years ago, but we spent so much money on the thing no one wanted to come up with something reasonable (namely, sending crew and cargo up separately, so you can use much cheaper 'heavy' rockets that don't need to be man rated)
Say what you will about the man's presidency, but Ronald Reagan sure could deliver a speech. Here he is addressing the nation on the night of the disaster.
Well he'd damn well better have since his political team was putting pressure on NASA to launch, so that it would be in orbit as he gave is SOTU speech. He actually bares some responsibility for the crash. And not just "he was the president when it happened" but his guys were part of the reason they didn't take the warnings seriously.
Had it been the very first fatal screw up by NASA ever I could see a certain "OMG, a highly trusted institution has been shown to be flawed" response--but A) that would clearly be a pretty naive response to a fuck-up by any human institution and B) NASA had already lost lives to entirely avoidable screw ups in the past.
This had been the first time NASA had lost any lives during an actual space launch. Other then that, people head died there had been a number of deaths between 1964 and 68 during training mishaps, but none for 18 years leading up to Challenger. Challenger nearly doubled the total number of casualties, from 8 to 14
manipulated by the military for missions we weren't allowed to know about.
Which they never even used it for, as far as I know. The idea was to be able to bring spy satellites into the shuttle to work on them, or something like that. Originally spy satellites had been designed to drop film periodically. The Russians actually built manned spy satellites, they actually built several space stations, some of which were for military purposes. The final one, Mir-2 ended up becoming the core of the ISS - and had originally been designed with a 5 megawatt laser to shoot down Ragan's SDI nonsense.

Anyway, by the time the Shuttle got built the CCD had been invented and photochemical spy satellites were history. So that was a big part of the shuttle's poor design.
In the moment, you're just sort of stunned, but in the aftermath, what struck me was the gloomy thought, still not entirely repudiated, that that moment, right then, is when humanity died. We'd go on, make great art and architecture and advance the cause of medicine and science, and one fine day, an untimely asteroid would wipe us all out because we'd lost our nerve to keep exploring
Oh dear god. This romanticizing the shuttle, just drives me crazy. It was an incredibly stupid design and getting rid of it is a good thing. Besides since when is the human race synonymous with "America". Other countries never lost their nerve. Russia pushed forward and now China, India and other countries have space programs. China is planning on sending people to the moon in a few years.

Thinking that people are stop going into space because Americans aren't going into space is ridiculous. And anyway we can get a lot more SCIENCE done per dollar by sending robots anyway. If the goal is actually to learn things, why send one dude to Mars when you can send 100 probes to 8 other planets? You know we discovered likely water on mercury in craters with shadows that never see sunlight? We have a probe headed to Pluto right now. We have the Kepler space telescope discovering thousands of extrasolar worlds. We have a huge probe the size of an SUV headed to Mars.

The money for all of that probably wouldn't have paid to lug a human, plus the massive amount of crap you need to keep them alive for a trip to mars out of earth's orbit.

The space shuttle wasn't a gateway into outer space. It couldn't even get out of Low earth orbit, as far as I know. It was an anchor, a ball and chain around the US space program, that held us back for decades. Damn straight good riddance.
posted by delmoi at 10:44 AM on May 2, 2012 [4 favorites]



Interesting that so many of us posting here were in elementary school. I wonder if it made a bigger impact on us and that's why there are less people saying "I was 25 when this happened..."


I was eight, and we'd been learning about the teacher and her students for weeks before the launch -- she was taking her kid's stuffed frog on the trip, what the students thought, etc. We had a teacher workday that day so we were all at home. I was so upset I couldn't eat, I just kept thinking about all those lessons about the teacher and how excited she was. It was horrible.

I think that's why this resonates with people who were in (US) elementary school around then.
posted by sweetkid at 10:44 AM on May 2, 2012


Oh dear god. This romanticizing the shuttle, just drives me crazy.

No one is forcing you read the thread or rehash old arguments.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:28 AM on May 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


Chilling amateur home video

I was watching it live when it happened (a recent college grad who'd moved to a new town and was piecing together part time jobs, therefore at loose ends that day), and this is pretty detached feeling to me, and doesn't come close to how chilling the live CNN coverage was. CNN was able to seriously zoom in on tumbling chunks of the spacecraft as they fell the long long way to finally hit the ocean with big splashes -- it was clear to anyone who had read about the structure of the shuttle that at least one of those big pieces would have been the crew cabin. A terrible moment, as is watching any accident or event where you are aware you are watching people die.
posted by aught at 11:37 AM on May 2, 2012


This is one of my first proper memories. I remember seeing it on Newsround, a UK programme aimed at kids which aired at about 5pm. I can remember everything about the room I was in, the plastic red chair and table I was sitting at (having my tea in front of the TV as a treat). Most of all I remember crying.
posted by greycap at 12:24 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think in a very real way the Challenger accident had more of an impact on me (and Gen X) than the bombing of the Trade Center.

Same. I hadn't been born yet to remember the Kennedy Assassination, but was old enough to know that it was a Thing You Remembered Where You Were that people couldn't help but talk about. And when the Challenger exploded, that was it for our generation - in my case, I think because it was a teacher up there, which I don't think any of us jaded kids cared about, really (I was a freshman in high school), but we knew we were supposed to care. We'd all seen Shuttle launches already. She wasn't our teacher. So instead it all felt like something teachers were shoving down our throats as important, (like the Vietnam War, which wasn't even in our history books) but that wasn't really relevant to us in a meaningful way. I remember it happened during lunchtime, so it was playing on TV's they had wheeled into the cafeteria, with the sound off. I watched but didn't watch, the way you do with soundless TV's in public places when you're doing something else. So I'm not sure if I saw it explode or only saw the replay of it exploding. But once I knew what I was seeing, I hid in the bathroom so I could cry, because it didn't seem like the kind of thing it would be cool to be caught crying over, but at the same time - all those people. All that hope.

I think it was the loss of innocence that connects it to Kennedy's killing in my head. That we believed that good, optimistic, future-positive things could be taken for granted, that the world is getting better in ways that we can safely ride without helping or holding tight... and then it turns out (as it always does) that everything is fragile, maybe especially the great things. That you can't take the world continuously getting better for granted.

And then later 9/11 happened and put this into a place where it feels silly to call it a liminal moment for a generation. But I really think it was.

Sorry I'm commenting without watching the link. I can see it just fine in my head still, and I think I'll go on watching without watching today. Because even though I know I shouldn't (and even though the whole point of my post here is that I know that I shouldn't), I'm lucky enough that I can.
posted by Mchelly at 12:34 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can see it just fine in my head still

Oh me too.
posted by sweetkid at 3:47 PM on May 2, 2012


I was in the dentist's chair, getting a cavity drilled, when a dental assistant came in and told us that the shuttle exploded. It was a few moments of "oh really? no way!" and then... back to drilling, really. What else could be done at that point.

I thought that about that time I read a thing in People magazine about McAuliffe, and I swear that they quoted one of her children saying "I don't want my mommy to die" or something, indicating the kid was scared obviously. Of course everyone laughed the child's fears off as ridiculous. I may be seriously misremembering but I don't think I entirely hallucinated this.

Thanks for the video, it was good. I never cried when it happened (I think I was about 12 or 13), but this video did it for me. The prayer at the end just slays me. And I'm not even religious.
posted by marble at 5:34 PM on May 2, 2012


I was a sophomore in high school when this happened. My brother was home sick and saw it live on tv.

I have to say, of all the footage I've seen of the disaster, this video is the most painful to watch.
posted by 4ster at 6:00 PM on May 2, 2012


I was not quite 11, so I remember it quite well. We weren't watching the launch at my school, but one of the other teachers came in and said something in a low voice to my teacher. I caught "explosion" and thought it was something local, but when we all headed over the the library (where the TV was) and I saw the empty launchpad, I knew it was something with the space program.

Back some years ago when the internet was still Web 1.0, I saw someone post a transcript of a supposed cockpit recording. And clicked on it due to morbid curiosity. I'm assuming it was fake. At least I hope so.

I have to say, of all the footage I've seen of the disaster, this video is the most painful to watch.

Yeah, there's something about the narration of those little old ladies. I've seen the official footage so many times, but I teared up a bit at this.
posted by weathergal at 6:10 PM on May 2, 2012


I have never quite understood the "on this day everything changed" response to the Challenger disaster. Seven people died doing something inherently risky.

Really? The number of people involved wasn't what made it a national disaster. It was a severe blow to American pride/psyche, as well as a very visible failure of an enormously expensive, lofty government project. The fact that the Challenger disaster effectively put the shuttle program on hiatus for two and a half years should be evidence enough of that. I would also argue that there's a feeling that people who die doing something pioneering, daring, or heroic (like blasting off into space) get a special place of remembrance, particularly if they die trying.
posted by nzero at 6:14 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Had it been the very first fatal screw up by NASA ever I could see a certain "OMG, a highly trusted institution has been shown to be flawed" response...

To many people it was the first fatal screw up by NASA, even though it wasn't the first NASA mistake that resulted in deaths.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:23 PM on May 2, 2012


[Reagan's] political team was putting pressure on NASA to launch, so that it would be in orbit as he gave is SOTU speech. He actually bares some responsibility for the crash. And not just "he was the president when it happened" but his guys were part of the reason they didn't take the warnings seriously.

delmoi, I have no brief to defend the man, but Reagan was not putting unusual pressure on NASA, at least none that was felt by the launch team. The people who were part of the decision have clearly stated that there was no political pressure, and they simply felt frustration at a constantly slipping launch schedule. If that counts as implicit political pressure, well, so do a lot of things.

For rational reasons, this is not a useful line of inquiry. The Challenger launch decision has been examined, now, for decades as a case study in engineering ethics, mistaken data handling, team communication and many other rational, useful things. To engage in what is essentially an evidence-free conspiracy theory betrays that important legacy.

I don't know, maybe these people did know her, but from the video it sounds to me like they were just enthusiastic fans. You can find that type of attitude in all kinds of different fan groups, and it was definitely true of the Space Shuttle program then.

Given their enthusiasm and their proximity to KSC, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they'd had an opportunity to meet her in person, or at least a public relations event where they were in the same room.

In any case, what was said earlier holds: She had become a national celebrity, and in those pre-social media, pre-reality show days, that was as close to godhood as anyone ever got.

I wonder if it made a bigger impact on us and that's why there are less people saying "I was 25 when this happened..."

I was 22 when this happened.... But I've told my version here before a couple of times. (I was on the road, listening to NPR, wishing I could watch the launch -- when an announcer broke in with grim news.) I think in terms of impact, though, being a youngster in school would definitely have heightened the overall impact. Even though not as many classrooms were watching live as thought, many did, and others would have had TVs wheeled in to watch the aftermath and hold teach-ins. Students would still have thought of teachers as important authority figures, as protectors, as surrogate parents. Many may still have dreamed of becoming astronauts themselves, while few 25-year-olds would have held onto that fantasy, unless they were already an engineer or pilot.

NASA overruled what the experts said. Isn't that always the way with EVERY disaster? I will never understand why companies hire the best only to overrule them due to money and ego.

As I've said, this is much more complex than just that. There were strong reasons rooted in NASA's test-pilot origins and national pride culture that created a default to "birds fly" unless there was a good reason, and post-Challenger there was a lot of work to reorient to a default "birds don't fly" culture. Essentially, the experts were put in the unenviable position of having to prove that the Shuttle would fail this particular time in order to tip the marker.

It's hard to really grapple with, but it's probably true that the people who made the decision to launch were also "the best" and were not driven by either money or ego. But the culture had become inverted.

Gwar sampled "Obviously a major malfunction"

For me, the most incongruous usage was in the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, where Gunnery Sgt. Hartman lambastes Private Pyle in the final moments of both their lives, "What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?!" Actor R. Lee Ermey improvised much of his dialog and seemed to pull this one from the ether of 1986, but in the 1960s it was merely an esoteric engineering term. I count it as an anachronism, but it's part of Ermey's stellar performance, so....

We sat down to watch the launch and I could just tell something wasn't right. The ship seemed to hesitate, somehow, and then the explosion.

Interesting that you feel you could tell that at the time (I do wonder, as this is a classic test of memory revision). Watching it as I do with detailed knowledge of the timeline of component failure, you can tell at least one "blip" in the plume that is likely when the SRB puncture burned through the bottom of the ET and began igniting the fuel, and a general unusual brightness to the plume that may reflect the higher output of the intact SRB that was compensating for the other's loss of propellant. But I don't put 100% on my observations even there.

What was it that the lady was talking about "parachute from the nose cone"?

The SRBs both had nose cones from which a parachute would deploy after separation, allowing them to return to earth and be recovered and reused. There are videos out there of later missions where you can see this from the SRB point of view.

A few moments after the Challenger quasi-explosion, however, a NASA Range Safety Officer pressed a big red button that destroyed both SRBs, as in this case they were still firing and had become effectively out-of-control fireworks the size of city buses. This apparently left at least one parachute in a seemingly deployed state, but there wasn't anything for it to bring back.

The orbiter vehicle itself, and the crew cabin component specifically, had no real post-incident safety devices, unless you count the oxygen supply that apparently saw partial usage.

I have never quite understood the "on this day everything changed" response to the Challenger disaster.

As noted, age may have something to do with it. I never felt "everything changed" and I don't think many adults did, although space fans certainly knew the program had changed for good. But there was a larger national narrative including Reagan's "Morning in America, Again" campaign slogan. Reagan's loss of halo from Iran Contra was many months away. Challenger represented the tip of the spear of a decades-long program to conquer space with superior American know-how (wow, how long since you've heard that phrase?), and thus as a national project symbolized many other things we were coming to terms with, such as deteriorated infrastructure in our highways and cities. I'll tell you that afterward, I wrote a poem with just this theme, of national projects come to naught, drawing a loose analogy with the Swedish warship Vasa -- which also had a "launch decision" of sorts.

that time I read a thing in People magazine about McAuliffe

Probably this one. Nothing laughed off, she expressed confidence in her safety but a willingness to take risks.
posted by dhartung at 11:44 PM on May 2, 2012


What we're watching here is the first moment an empire realised it was fallible.
posted by Hogshead at 6:47 AM on May 3, 2012


What we're watching here is the first moment an empire realised it was fallible.

I thought that was when we fled Saigon.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 7:49 AM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


I thought that was when we fled Saigon.

Definitely. Maybe Hogshead just forgot about that one. But that was a hella lot more indicative of imperial fallibility than a single rocket blowing up. That was the mightiest nation on earth hightailing it out of one of the smallest and poorest, who had kicked its imperial ASS.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:10 AM on May 3, 2012


The Shuttle was a smack in the face reminder of fallibility. Humiliation is a dish served any number of times, particularly if you deserve it.

"What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?!" Actor R. Lee Ermey improvised much of his dialog and seemed to pull this one from the ether o [...]

The choice of words "major malfunction" had to come from somewhere. I can easily imagine that a NASA guy of 1986 did a tour in Vietnam in 1968, and could easily have picked up the jargon there -- the original major malfunction.
posted by philip-random at 9:13 AM on May 3, 2012


Oh, if it were military jargon, philip-random, that would of course make sense, but it was engineering jargon, and it got into a movie portraying military jargon of 1968 using a word a drill sergeant was unlikely to have picked up during his tour of duty at JPL. ;-) As I said, I don't actually count it against the movie -- it's such a representative line of the film. It just fascinates me, and I don't think it would be there if the movie had been made in 1985 or 1997.
posted by dhartung at 3:21 PM on May 4, 2012


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