Remembering Challenger…

This post appeared originally at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 28 January 2007.

It was a very cold morning in North Florida (in the teens/low 20s Fahrenheit) as I walked in to class during my second semester of graduate school. I vaguely recall some concerns about the launch of Challenger that morning because of the cold and I believe it was scrapped once before, this highly-touted launch of America's first schoolteacher in space. 1986...This was before the ubiquity of the internet and I didn't have a radio in our small lab. The first I heard of the disaster was while standing on the med center cafeteria lunch line when a visually-impaired gentleman asked me what I thought of the space shuttle event. I thought he was referring to the likelihood that the launch was canceled again. Instead, a blind man was asking me if I had seen the explosion. Two of my fellow students who had undergraduate pharmacy degrees were down in Orlando that morning taking the Florida pharmacy boards so they could score some lucrative part-time work to supplement our graduate stipend of $6,600 per year. They could see the somewhat Y-shaped cloud to the east from their exam room resulting from the detonation of the booster rockets. Afterwards, I recall some criticism that NASA had been pressured to go forward with the launch due to President Reagan's scheduled State of the Union speech that evening. I recall Richard Feynman's famous illustration of a distorted O-ring from his glass of ice water during a press conference of the Rogers Commission investigating the accident. [This link autoplays a 29-second video of his testimony] The Florida DMV issued a memorial license plate with proceeds to go toward education of the children of the astronauts who perished in the disaster. I renewed the plate each year until leaving Florida for my postdoc...and keep it to this day. (Note: Prof John Lynch at Stranger Fruit remembers yesterday's anniversary of the 1967 launchpad oxygen fire that claimed Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee.).
Added 28 January 2011: The NASA mission description for STS-51L describes in great detail the sequence of technical failures leading to the explosion. I couldn't find any information in the mission plans to indicate that any chemistry experiments were planned but I hope you'll indulge me in this remembrance today here at CENtral Science. This Awesome Stories post by Carole D. Bos closes with a quote from Richard Feynman that concludes Appendix F of the Rogers Commission Report:
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. And following up with another Feynman quip: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself-and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.”

  2. Indeed, CW. My mentors taught me that once you get a nice result, you should try to do everything to prove yourself wrong before publishing.