Lessons Learned From Challenger

Written by William J. Richards William J. Richards

William J. Richards is the Director of New Media for the Hall Institute of Public Policy.  His research interests include aerospace policy, science education, information technology in the democratic process, and civil rights.

Friday, 28 January 2011 14:26

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Challenger STS-51L CrewChallenger STS-51L CrewThis week, President Obama delivered the State of Our Union in his typical eloquent style.  A central theme of his message was that the nation is at what he termed a “Sputnik Moment”.  The President was not referring to space per se.  Rather, he was referring to a cultural crisis in education.  America is at a crossroads.  Much of the rest of the world puts more of an emphasis on basic math and science education.  We do not, and we risk being left behind.  That is our current “Sputnik Moment”.

An Inspirational Tragedy

Twenty five years ago today, much of the nation gathered around their televisions to watch another initiative to rekindle interest in science education – The Space Shuttle Challenger’s mission which would carry the first Teacher in Space.

We all know the basic history of that day.  If you were alive at the time, you almost certainly remember where you are.  It’s a moment etched in the American collective consciousness like the Assignation of JFK, and the attacks of 9/11.

On January 28, 1986, the nation watched what had almost come to seem routine, yet another shuttle launch.  NASA’s public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt read the countdown as always.  Challenger cleared the launch tower, and all seemed well – until a ghastly cloud of smoke and debris engulfed the shuttle.  Everyone was in shock.  Nobody knew what had happened.  But everyone knew it was wrong.  Steve Nesbit’s calm words seconds after the explosion summed it up in a chilling way “Obviously a major malfunction.”  NASA didn’t know what had happened yet either.

The space shuttle Challenger and all seven Astronauts, Commander Francis R. "Dick" Scobee; Pilot Michael J. Smith; Mission Specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik; and Payload Specialists Gregory B. Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe were lost.

It would be five more months before the Rogers Commission named launching in temperatures below what the O-Rings were rated for as the technical culprit, and named systemic mismanagement, “go-fever” as a cultural cause for the disaster.  Today, on the anniversary of the loss of Challenger and her crew, many stories will be written about what went wrong.  I’d like to instead focus on what was right, and what we can learn from these pioneers.

Teaching from 100 miles up

This mission included the culmination of a program announced in 1984 by President Reagan.  The Teacher in Space Program was intended to spur interest among America’s youth in math, science and space exploration.  NASA had wanted to open up space flight to private citizens, and the theory was there was no better way to start than with a teacher.  Under the program, a civilian teacher, who was not a full-time NASA employee would actually teach lessons from onboard the Space Shuttle.  After the mission, he or she would return to civilian life, and continue to draw on their experience as a teacher in the classroom – who happened to have flown in space.  This was part of the march toward making space flight seem routine.

Over 11,000 teachers answered the call and applied for the program. NASA selected 114 educators who would interview for the opportunity in Washington D.C. 10 finalists were selected to go to NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston to interview with NASA officials, take medical exams, and be briefed about the realities of space flight.

On July 19, 1985, Vice President George Bush announced two teachers had been selected for the program.  Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from New Hampshire was named to be the first teacher in space.  Barbara Morgan, an elementary school teacher from Idaho was selected as her backup for the mission.

Christa McAuliffe’s mission included two 15 minute lessons which would be broadcast across the nation via PBS. The first lesson plan, “The Ultimate Field Trip” was to examine daily life on board a spacecraft, and how it differed from life on Earth.  She would explore the different roles of the various crew members.  She would explain what kinds of experiments were being conducted onboard. She would even show how very basic things like preparing food, basic movement, exercise, personal hygiene, and sleep are no longer the simple tasks they are on Earth.

The second lesson plan, “Where We've Been, Where We're Going” would be a review of many of the technological benefits that had already come out of the space program, and an exploration of the theorized advantages of manufacturing in microgravity, followed by conjuncture on what the future of manned space flight could bring.

McAuliffe said of the mission “I think it's going to be very exciting for kids to be able to turn on the TV and see the teacher teaching from space. I'm hoping that this is going to elevate the teaching profession in the eyes of the public, and of those potential teachers out there, and hopefully, one of the maybe secondary objectives of this is students are going to be looking at me and perhaps thinking of going into teaching as professions.”

Learning from the students

Connected to the Teacher in Space Project was the Shuttle Student Involvement Program (SSIP).  NASA has selected three student teams to design experiments to be flown on board the shuttle.  Christa McAuliffe was tasked with carrying out these experiments.

The first experiment was a study of how titanium alloy reacts in microgravity as it’s super-heated.  The experiment was designed by Lloyd C. Bruce of St. Louis, MO. His experiment was sponsored by McDonnell Douglas Aerospace.  As titanium is heated and cools, its crystal grain structure reorganizes.  Lloyd hypothesized that in microgravity; the way the crystal structure reorganizes would change, resulting in larger structures.  The hope was that this could result in a stronger titanium alloy, or lead to a new industrial process.

The second experiment was a study of crystal growth in microgravity.  The experiment was designed by Richard S. Cavoli of Marlboro, NY.  Richard’s experiment involved Lead Iodide crystals, which are useful in imaging systems for detecting gamma rays and X-rays.  The hope was that the research could be used to design and build better spacecraft sensors.  His research was sponsored by Dr. Charles Seaise of Union College.

The final SSIP experiment first involved studying how chicken embryos develop when exposed to the microgravity and radiation of space compared to a control group developing normally on the Earth.  It was designed by John C. Vellinge of Lafayette, IN. After the eggs returned to Earth and all have hatched, he would try to determine any organ, bone structure, or nervous system differences between the two groups.  The experiment was sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken, with support from NASA Ames Research Center.

Keep in mind, all these ambitious experiments were designed by students while they were still in high school.  Allowing students across America this level of participation in the cutting edge of research was of enormous importance to NASA.

Routine life on the cutting edge

Of course, the historic Teacher in Space Project was only a part of the flight NASA called STS-51L.  Challenger’s mission was full of experiments that would push the cutting edge and lay the foundation for future endeavors in space.

Challenger’s primary payload was a satellite which when deployed would provide greater communications and tracking capabilities for the shuttle fleet and the future space station.  TRDS-B would supplement the existing TDRS-A and when deployed would give NASA over 80% on-orbit coverage for tracking and communicating with the shuttles.  It was to be an essential part of the foundation for America’s permanent presence in space.

Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka would use an instrument designed specially for this mission called SPARTAN-203 to observe Halley’s Comet.  Challenger’s unique vantage point 100 miles above the Earth would allow her to use SPARTAN to observe the comet closer to the sun than possible with Earth based instruments.  Observations on the visible and ultraviolet wavelengths would give scientists new data on how comets react as they come close to the sun.

Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis would run a series of fluid dynamics experiments to test the way satellite propellants react to spacecraft maneuvers.  The date collected would help design better spacecraft propulsion systems in the future, and possibly better, more efficient fuels for satellites.

Challenger also carried an experiment to study the separation of biomedical materials such as cells and proteins in microgravity.  The Phase Partitioning Experiment (PPE) would theoretically have been able to separate cells with higher resolution than could then be obtained in a laboratory.

Challenger’s legacy today

In the same speech that President Obama warned of our “Sputnik Moment”, he also called on Americans to “teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”

The importance this can not be overstated.  The crew of Challenger clearly believed in math, science, and the exploration of space.  But what they didn’t believe was that these were obscure little arcane specialties only accessible to a few elites in the rarified halls of Ivy League universities or major research labs.  They believed that science and education were accessible to all Americans, and that it was important for all of us to continue to grow and learn.  They also believed that America should remain at the forefront of science and technology.  And they certainly believed that the most important thing of all was to reach out to the next generations.  To inspire them, and foster a love of learning that would ensure America continues to be a source of innovation and discovery for years to come.

The rest of the world treats science and math education as an economic investment in the future.  They treat teachers as nation builders, and they don’t tolerate bad educators.  If we want to honor the memory of the crew of Challenger, and the spirit they lived by, we have to pick up the torch, and move forward to rekindle interest in science, math, and the space program.  The Challenger seven dedicated their lives, and ultimately gave their lives to that end.



If you’d like to learn more about Challenger, her mission, and her crew; visit the Challenger Center.  The center was founded by the relatives of the Challenger crew, and its mission is to inspire children to learn and discover.

NASA also has an official day of remembrance page to commemorate the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger 51-L, and Columbia 107.

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Lessons Learned From Challenger