Photo by Everett Historical/ Shutterstock.com
The Challenger launch 30 years ago marked NASA’s 25th Space Shuttle mission, the 20th after five test flights. Much like the nearly doomed Apollo 13 mission some 16 years earlier, mission STS-51-L came along far enough into the program’s timeline that some people no longer felt compelled to watch its liftoff on television. What captured the imagination of many who followed the buildup to launch was the presence on the crew of Christa McAuliffe, selected from more than 11,000 applicants to become the first teacher in space. The mission was the 10th for Challenger, the second shuttle put into service by NASA.
By now, you no doubt know what happened 73 seconds after Challenger’s liftoff.
Today’s anniversary brings back memories, many of them shared by the millions who followed the news after the shuttle broke apart on that Tuesday morning high above the Kennedy Space Center on the eastern coast of Florida. There are phrases we will always connect with the disaster.
On that sunny winter’s morning, there were, as USA Today recalled five years ago, the “two separate streams of smoke veering first apart and then together, then twisting around in a wild dance.” There was the look on the face of McAuliffe’s father, who was in the spectator gallery near the launch site, trying to process what had happened moments after the shuttle broke into pieces. Later, there were memorial services, and schools and scholarships named in honor of astronauts lost as the mission was barely underway.
There are other things I will never forget. The morning of the launch, I read a newspaper story that previewed the expected launch, noting that it had been scrubbed or delayed several times in the previous week. A student at Concord High School in New Hampshire, where McAuliffe taught, let on that it was getting rather tiresome hearing so much about her day after day. Almost every year on the anniversary, I wonder how he felt after the disaster, and in the days and weeks after it.
In the late ’80s, a self-promotional CNN bumper showed the dramatic moment of the fireball and the shuttle coming apart, dubbing in the sound of a loud explosion that wasn’t part of its live coverage on Jan. 28, 1986. I remember being stunned and outraged CNN felt that the moment needed hyping so it could hype itself coming in and out of commercial breaks. It’s still nauseating and disappointing to me to recall it.
One memory I doubt anyone else has from 30 years ago involves the somewhat unlikely pairing in my mind of the Space Shuttle disaster and the movie “Runaway Train.” Its nationwide release was Jan. 17, 1986, five days before the planned Challenger launch, and less than two weeks before the eventual launch. I saw it in its first few days of release and found it gripping, and I left the theater certain I would want to see it again, largely because of the performance by Jon Voight and how the train seemed like a character itself (like the music at times). Director Andrei Konchalovsky painted a haunting picture of two escaped prisoners and a crew member confronting their own mortality on the runaway locomotive. Roger Ebert, who shared my enthusiasm about the film, wrote this in his review:
The ending of the movie is astonishing in its emotional impact. I will not describe it. All I will say is that Konchalovsky has found the perfect visual image to express the ideas in his film. Instead of a speech, we get a picture, and the picture says everything that needs to be said. Afterward, just as the screen goes dark, there are a couple of lines from Shakespeare that may resonate more deeply the more you think about the Voight character.
For days following the Challenger disaster, my emotions were not unexpected or unusual. It was a horrible way for seven people to die, and my shock and sadness were probably no different than what most others experienced. Also, I’d grown up enthralled by NASA and every part of the U.S. space program, and I knew this was a blow to the program and the public’s confidence in it.
But something else was nagging at me, some unresolved tension I couldn’t identify. It was a thick, unsettling fog as I tried to move through it and through my daily routine. The more my intellect searched for a handle on the feeling, the more any logical explanation eluded me.
Then one weekday afternoon I took a nap and woke up with a start, roused by the sound of a single, booming explosion. I’d had a dreamless sleep, so I asked my mom if she’d heard the loud noise. She said no, asking me if I’d had a bad dream. I said no, then found myself opening the newspaper for the page with the movie listings, suddenly feeling pulled toward a second viewing of “Runaway Train.” I saw that I had just enough time to drive across town and make it to the 7ish showing. For much of it, I was somewhat distracted, still shrouded in whatever undefined uneasiness had taken hold since the shuttle had exploded.
I watched, for a second time, the person in charge at the railway’s central control room monitoring the situation with the runaway train by radio communications and with a $4.5 million state-of-the-art computerized system he’d designed and installed. As others begin to panic, he takes a sip of coffee and says, “Come on, the system’s foolproof.” But, one by one, the usual safeguards become disabled or nonexistent through a series of unexpected developments.
As the train, and the three people on board, speed toward the film’s climax, the staff at central control, after making a series of decisions designed to limit casualties, is left to do nothing but wait for what seems inevitable. As a supervisor tinkers with what resembles a chain of interconnected, oversized paperclips, the young man who designed the high-tech system is shaken by his inability to take control of the train.
“I still don’t understand,” he says. “How did this happen? Why couldn’t we stop it, with all this junk? I mean, with all this high technology?”
As he speaks, a report about a successful NASA launch of two communications satellites is on a television near his workstation. After showing highlights from the launch, the report cuts to a smooth landing by the Space Shuttle at the end of the mission.
That’s when I knew what had been gnawing at me since the Challenger disaster. That’s when the unresolved tension gave way to an understanding that the clip showing the Space Shuttle — at such a reflective moment in the film, a moment of realization about the things we make that we think are foolproof — had made an impression on me the first time I saw the movie. But it did so in a way I didn’t consciously remember the day the shuttle exploded after liftoff. Yet, my subconscious tugged at me from then until I went back for that second viewing. I concluded that my subconscious mind woke me from that nap with what I’d thought was the sound of an explosion, and somehow stirred me to seemingly randomly pick that night to see “Runaway Train” again.
All of the usual emotions following a tragedy were still with me to some degree, but the unsettling feeling I’d had, the one I couldn’t put my finger on, was gone. Instead of having an eerie vibe about the way it led me to see the movie a second time, I felt calm. There was resolution, yes, but also a level of comfort that my subconscious mind was looking out for me. It’s not the only time it’s done that, but it remains one of the most memorable. For a long time, I tried to glean some deeper meaning from it, but mostly I accepted that it was a reminder of the power and complexities of our subconscious minds.
So many lives were changed by the Challenger disaster 30 years ago, when we were again jolted out of whatever complacency had settled in after a series of successful missions. Watching “Runaway Train” again recently, I found myself considering that only a fool thinks that anything made by us is foolproof, and how the systems we build tend to be susceptible to human error, user error and the number of ways in which we arrogantly tempt fate. The conclusions drawn after the failure of the shuttle’s O-rings, which were never tested in extremely cold weather, are widely available for examination.
Thirty years later, my mind still links Challenger and “Runaway Train,” and it probably always will.