Thursday, January 28, 2016

Off-topic: Thirty years ago today: a space tragedy that could have been avoided

That morning, thirty years ago today, I remember hearing on the radio about how icy conditions in Florida might again delay the launch of the space shuttle that day. I thought nothing of it--space launch delays were common, and the launch had been delayed the previous day. Then, a few hours later at the office, an attorney colleague of mine was in tears--she told me that Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded 73 second after liftoff killing all seven astronauts aboard. The culprit was a faulty O-ring seal. The mission was widely publicized because Christa McAuliffe would have been the first teacher in space.

It was a launch that never should have occurred. NASA was under pressure to launch when it shouldn't have. The launch was supposed to occur the previous day but got postponed, and the night before, CBS news anchor Dan Rather led off CBS’s evening news with these words: “Yet another costly, red-faces-all-around space shuttle-launch-delay. This time, a bad bolt on a hatch and a bad-weather bolt from the blue are being blamed.” The news broadcast painted NASA technicians as bumblers. The Washington Post later said that pressure from the news media may explain the imprudent decision. Public outcries, or perceived public outcries, often interfere with prudence and are responsible for all manner of bad decisions.

On that night in 1986, President Ronald Reagan postponed his State of the Union Address and instead spoke to the nation about the tragedy. It was among the greatest presidential speeches of our time--pitch perfect in tone and content. Reagan's reputation as "The Great Communicator" was well-deserved, never more so than that night when the nation needed to be consoled and assured. Reagan famously concluded his speech by talking about the crew of the Challenger: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye--and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

EDIT: I just saw this great article about the speech.