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(NOTE: The following is a fictionalized account of the 15 days in January 1986 leading up to the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster on the 28th of that month; however, the details of weather and NASA events are based on known historical data.)

Titusville, Florida
Thursday, January 23, 1986
High Temp: 75° F Low Temp: 53° F

Earth looking out through Challenger cargo bay

Tomorrow we should launch Challenger on its 10th mission. Temperatures were seasonal today; however, the weather is questionable as another cold front is moving through tomorrow. We won’t know if the launch is a go or not until a few hours or less before liftoff.

Beyond weather considerations, there are thousands of things that have to be perfect before a mission is given a “go for launch.” It’s a wonder we ever get a Space Shuttle off the ground. Every individual component of the Orbiter, the External Tank (ET), and the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) is rated in one of five categories of impact on the mission, vehicle, and/or crew if the part fails. The ratings are as follows:

  • Criticality 1 (C1) – Loss of vehicle or crew if the component fails
  • Criticality 2 (C2) – Loss of mission
  • Criticality 3 (C3) – Component will not have fatal impact on crew, vehicle, or mission if it alone fails
  • Criticality 1R (C 1R) – Redundant component, but loss of vehicle or crew if both primary and redundant components fail
  • Criticality 2R (C 2R) – Redundant component, but loss of mission if both primary and redundant components fail

Any component that is not rated C3 and has a known issue not only stops the countdown, but the entire program, until resolved. When trying to put seven people and tons of cargo into Earth orbit, there are a lot of components that fall into the C1, C2, C 1R, or C 2R categories. Safety can be annoying, but it save lives.

Crew of Challenger STS-7 mission working in space

That said, it is impossible for any human, regardless of how careful, intelligent or well-educated, to be able to anticipate every possible problem. Exploration of uncharted territory comes with a price and that price is the loss of human life. Over 700 people died trying to reach the North Pole and even there we have air to breathe, water, and survivable temperatures if properly dressed. In space there is no air, no water, and a human dies if directly exposed to the vacuum of space.

Space travel is risky on the best of days. Astronauts are put in a ship that is designed to be as light-weight as possible with no significant armor or shielding around them. They are attached to two highly explosive solid rocket boosters that would flatten a small city if they exploded, connected to a massive tank filled with hydrogen and oxygen that has a nasty tendency to flash burn if it comes in contact to even a small flame or spark.

In addition, the speeds and the pressures that astronauts experience are unlike any other reality most humans can imagine. There is no doubt that human life will be lost in the pursuit of space exploration. We will do everything we can to safeguard our astronauts, but at some point we will discover what we did not anticipate. At some point an accident will occur on the ground or in flight. We will investigate, learn where we failed and moved forward again.

For centuries humans sailed near the coastline because no one knew what lie out across the sea. Staying close to shore taught us how to sail, while minimizing the risk. Even then ships sank and people died. The Space Shuttle program is our way of sailing near the coastline. We send people up into low Earth orbit and learn how to ‘sail’ in space. After a few decades we will be ready to go out into open space, just as ships were ready to cross open seas.

There are some who ask why should we reach out into space. That is probably what some people asked sailors who went off to explore the new world. But those brave men sailed off into uncharted waters and everything we now enjoy in the United States of America is due to those who took the risks to leave behind the safety of ‘the known’ in order to explore the unknown.

The answer to those people who want to know ‘why’ is simply this: we don’t know why…YET. After we get there we will know why it was so important we went. That is the way it has always been when exploring the unknown. That is the way it will always be.