‘We’re still pioneers’

2011 January 27
by Don Hammack

I was walking across campus on Jan. 28, 1986, when I heard the news. I had some early class or another, and I was headed back to Duggar Hall for a mid-morning break. I was a bit of a space geek, in my freshman year of getting an aerospace engineering degree. (Yeah, one of my former lives.) Somebody said as they walked past that the space shuttle had blown up. I was the guy who didn’t believe the neighbor kid who told me that Elvis had died, and I was skeptical this time, too.

Of course, it was true. I joined the guys in the Duggar lobby watching the coverage on CNN. Challenger was the first significant stumble by the space program since Apollo 13 and the first loss of life in a U.S. spacecraft since Apollo 1 killed Gus Grissom, Edward White II and Roger Chaffee during a launch rehearsal. Within a couple of years, I was working as a co-operative education student at Martin Marietta at their Michoud facility in New Orleans East. Needless to say, there wasn’t much manufacturing going on with the external tanks stacked up waiting for spaceflight to resume.

The U.S. Navy nuclear power program grabbed me up while I was still in Starkville, and then my bizarre Chuck-the-Education-Do-Journalism experiment started. I never got back in the space business, but I wonder what its future holds.

NASA’s stumble started a long series of stumbles, but the root causes stemmed from decisions made more than 25 years ago Thursday. The space shuttle is a compromised vehicle, figuratively and literally. It’s one of those little pickup trucks you don’t see anymore built when an 18-wheeler was needed. It had no heavy lifting capability and was overly complicated by the desire to make it reusable.

There were budgetary and political reasons that caused it all, things that popped up really as soon as Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. The brakes started to be applied to the manned space program just after that, and NASA has been increasingly unable to sustain one since. Financial limitations helped spur a culture change that led to decreasing safety margins. Challenger and Columbia are proof of that.

And there’s no real future for manned space flight at NASA. It still does space exploration and observation damned well. Unmanned missions make costs are more manageable on those fronts. The private sector is more likely to get humans in space than NASA, at this point, and perhaps that’s for the best.

If it’s possible to get people to space safely and pay for it commercially, so much the better. It’s human nature that people are going to want to get to space. That was the case January 28, 1986, when Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik took off and it will be the case forever.

We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’

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