In this day and age, as so many Americans are taken to the hospital or the morgue because of gunshot wounds, it’s not supposed to be appropriate to appear vitriolic in print or rhetoric, but with the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster coming up on January 28, I’ve decided to say a few words about it.
It was inappropriate to begin with. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, is the most well-known of the astronauts on the shuttle, though six others, professional astronauts all, also flew–and perished–that day. McAuliffe was the first in the “Teacher in Space Project,” launched into space to give lessons to children in the US and around the world. I never understood why they needed to launch a teacher into space when one or more of the regular astronauts could have done the job just as well. But that’s beside the point.
Primarily, flying in space is dangerous–Challenger and Columbia proved that beyond discussion. But even before Challenger took off, it was grossly inappropriate, highly dangerous, and almost pompous of NASA to be launching civilians into space. Riding rockets should be done by those who have a total commitment to the mission and the knowledge and expertise to understand the risks involved. That doesn’t include civilians hired a year before a mission just to fly into space and beam back lessons, regardless of how high-profile the project is.
Secondarily, putting a civilian on a spaceflight mission is expensive, and the space occupied by McAuliffe could probably have been used to promote the mission of the flight, rather than taking up space by someone simply hired to “give lessons from space.” I don’t know what lessons she planned to give, and it’s not important. It seems to me a poor use of scarce resources.
In short, let’s keep the exploration of outer space to those who know what they’re doing, and not use it for promotional purposes. I realize that McAuliffe’s mission was to excite schoolchildren into wanting to learn more about space and about the subjects she was to teach from space, and, hopefully, get them interested in careers in science. That’s a fine idea, except that it could be done better here on earth by those trained in secondary education and not by an untrained teacher from orbit. Spaceflight has not reached the level of safety of, say, riding in a car or a train or even a commercial aircraft. That is, I believe, the mistake NASA made. With no loss of life in any shuttle mission before the Challenger launch on January 28, 1986, they figured that launch would go smoothly, too. It didn’t, and let’s not denigrate the Shuttle Program, or the newest heavy lift vehicles coming down the line by using them so foolishly for something other that what they were designed for until we can be sure and safe about the vehicles and the flight. Space exploration is too expensive and important to make light of it, and it’s too dangerous to allow politicians to put their pet projects on shuttle flights.
The unknown is out there. Who will it grab next?
Now I’ve had my say. What’s yours?