We are nearly 35 years from the Challenger space shuttle disaster, when in January 1986 seven American astronauts died when their craft blew up just over a minute after being launched from Cape Canaveral. As with the Kennedy assassination or the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, those of us of a certain age can recall clearly where we were at the time.
I remember seeing on the news that evening film of the various vapour trails as parts of the spacecraft went in different directions; but I remember even better seeing footage the next day of the magnificent televised address, made to his people on the evening of the tragedy, by President Reagan that articulated on behalf of America the response to a true national tragedy.
He concluded it with a quotation from the poem High Flight by John Gillespie Magee Jr, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who was killed in action in 1941, saying the astronauts had ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to "touch the face of God". Envisaging the present occupant of the White House behaving with such distinction stretches the imagination to an impossible extent.
Reagan had of course been an actor – albeit not of the highest calibre – and he knew how to deliver his lines to maximum effect; it was probably his greatest speech and his finest performance. Excerpts from his address, and much other contemporary footage, feature in a four-part documentary on the disaster on Netflix, Challenger: The Final Flight, which uses the testimony of NASA controllers and rocket engineers not merely to retell the story, but to look in detail at what went wrong and who was to blame.
What also features, after the story is told of the development of the space shuttle programme, the selection of the astronauts, their life stories and the build-up to the fatal moment, is the request Reagan made to his former Attorney-General, William Rogers, who chaired the committee of inquiry (Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was the vice-chairman), that blame should not be laid at the door of NASA, the American space agency.
The President regarded NASA as national heroes; he understood the public’s estimation of the agency and did not wish to compromise it; and he knew the importance of the space programme (which, despite the disaster, he was determined to continue) to America’s national self-esteem and place in the world. Sadly, Rogers was unable to oblige him. One of the Commission’s members, Richard Feynman, a theoretical physicist, worked out that the O-rings that sealed one section of the rockets from another were faulty at low temperatures.
The Commission also found that NASA had, despite the dissent (caused by the effect of the cold on the O-rings) of five engineers from Thiokol, the firm that had made the rockets, decided to press ahead with the launch. Because of the amount of hydrogen in the rocket one astronaut interviewed in the documentary reminds the audience that Challenger was effectively a bomb. When the O-rings failed to seal their compartments properly, burning gas reached the fuel tanks and the bomb went off.
The decision to launch was ultimately that of Lawrence Mulloy, a NASA official, who had shown in other Challenger launches that he took a robust and not a cautious view of risk. Mulloy says he would take the same decision again, if forced to do so with the data he had available at the time.
Moved from NASA six months after the disaster, he has spent the last 34 years trying to shift some of the blame off his own shoulders: but that is where posterity has deemed it to rest. Although he expresses regret, he maintains there is still no proof that anyone could have known a fatal malfunction would happen.
Guilt is an overwhelming feeling among all those who had any hand in the events of that day. It even dominated Bob Ebeling, who died four years ago at the age of 89, and yet he was one of the Thiokol engineers who warned NASA not to launch that day. Other engineers bore the same burden: even if they warned Challenger was vulnerable if the launch took place on a cold day, they had still had a hand in the faulty design.
The low profile Mulloy has kept since the event is perhaps explained by a remark he made, highlighted in the documentary, when the Thiokol engineers were arguing during a conference call with NASA about the timing of the launch. "My God, Thiokol. When do you want me to launch? Next April?"
Mulloy, as Project Manager, had huge clout, and his bullying question settled the matter. He had earlier issued a waiver to allow flights of the shuttle when irregularities had occurred in the O-rings on test runs.
The sense of being responsible for the loss of seven lives – and the lives of seven of America’s most accomplished citizens at that – was bad enough. But theirs were deaths that occurred on live television, as the drastic counterpoint to what seconds earlier had been a shared moment of national triumph. It was the sense of a whole nation sharing in the tragedy that multiplied the focus of blame, and of guilt, on those responsible, to unreasonable levels.
The documentary amplifies this by its interviews with the widows and families of the dead astronauts, notably the sister of Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who won the competition to be the first civilian in space and who is portrayed as something of a saint.
In any pioneering activity – be it flight, spaceflight, or earlier in history the exploration of the ocean, or of distant lands – the very fact that these were journeys into the unknown means they were activities laden with risk. In the past, tens of millions were not watching on television.
Reagan reminded his audience that he spoke on the 390th anniversary of the death of Sir Francis Drake, killed by dysentery while attacking San Juan in Puerto Rico: the implication being that the risk of death has always been implicit in the idea of adventure, and that even the most experienced pioneer or explorer can fall victim to it.
The Americans were undeterred and pressed on with their Shuttle programme after a two-year break. In 2003 the shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry, killing the seven astronauts on board, its reverberative effect less traumatic if only because public opinion had been to an extent conditioned by the events of 1986.
After another two years the programme began again: but since the shuttle was ‘retired’ in 2011 the exploration of space has moved more to the private sector. Richard Branson may or may not take people into space one day; Space travel used to be about the pursuit of national glory; now it is a publicity stunt.
But the consideration of space travel, and the pushing back of the remaining boundaries of the possibilities of the universe, seems an almost impossible concept at a time when the limits of what is possible do not extend beyond the demands of international quarantine, the rule of six and social distancing.
Perhaps it is because we appear to have gone backwards in our desire to take risks and treat death as an occupational hazard of life, after centuries of boldness, that we accept so readily a need to be confined today not by the threat of the unknown, but by that of a virus.