It was twenty years ago today


STS 51-L was destroyed 73 seconds after lift-off on the morning of January 28th, 1986.

I was in my high school library’s “resource room” (playing chess, I think) when someone said that the space shuttle had exploded. After determining that he wasn’t joking, I asked if he meant “exploded”, as in “a fireball and everything”. He said “yes”, and that he had seen the replay on television. I told my chess opponent and friend that the external tank must have blown up for some reason.

“Some reason.”

Being a bit of a space program fan, I was more than familiar with all the criticism that the Space Shuttle Main Engines had received, and figured that a space shuttle disaster was most-likely to involve either the SSME’s during lift-off or the heat tiles during re-entry. Since the shuttle had proven that the tiles worked just fine, the glaring weak point was, obviously, the engines. One of them must have malfunctioned in a major way and taken the entire vehicle and crew with it.

Instead, the “some reason” (when you cut through all the politics, bureaucracy, and finger-pointing) is really something pretty simple and pretty stupid.

Just like the majority of the other technological disasters that so often end up costing people their lives. Millions of disaster like this are averted every day. But sometimes, for “some reason”, one slips through. And it usually changes the world when it does.

I’ve come to realize that the destruction of the Challenger is one of my “I remember exactly where I was when I heardmoments.

Besides the interrupted chess game in the school library, another thing that sticks with me about that day is the address that President Reagan gave. It’s worth watching again.

Here is an old (not updated since 1997) but extensive link-filled page on the disaster at FAS.


  1. I remember it well. I was working for AT&T marketing at the time. About 11:00AM a female colleague came over to my desk and told me she was on the phone with one of her customers. He (the customer) paused, mid conversation, for a moment and told her he had been informed the space shuttle had just ‘Blown up’! It was eerie cause we had an ‘open plan office’ with waist high cubicals. Normally, the phones were constantly ringing and there was always a ‘verbal buzz’ about the place. Suddenly there was TOTAL silence. No phone ringing, not a voice to be heard. It seemed to last forever. Then individuals began to comment, cry and utter prayers. Work stopped and very few Business calls came in for the rest of the day. We had no e-mail back then so the telephone were the main source of obtaining information from friends and family. It suddenly brought back memories of the only other major NASA related tragedy, which occurred when the 3 astronaughts had perished in a fire at the THEN Cape Kennedy center in 1968. Most of my fellow workers were too young to recall that incident, but it was etched clearly in my mind. WOW, 20 years ago and it seems, to me, like just a month ago!

  2. That’s where I remember getting the news of the space shuttle exploding, too. Although, I was not the chess opponent, nor the disaster informer. By the way, I have to say that Murdoc was cooler than ‘library-resource-room chess player’ sounds. Either that, or I was a bigger geek than I realized!

  3. With no disrespect intended, I have to say that more recent developments have exposed deficiencies in the tiling system that were present all along. Also, I distinctly remember that being criticised quite a lot because of its high initial and maintenance cost and time (related to being labour intensive). Yes, I know that the more recent disaster was proximately caused by something hitting the tiles. But what this tells me is that the tiles are not suitable for use in the field, since they are not robust enough. Over and above that, history has given an ironic overtone to one of Jack Lemmon’s early lines in ‘The China Syndrome’. He says something like ‘We have a quality control system equalled only by NASA’. For more material on this area, I’d suggest readers follow up Jerry Pournelle’s comments about NASA’s overly bureaucratic approach at his site,