Tag Archives: space shuttle

Challenger: 27 Years Later

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“We risk great peril if we kill off this spirit of adventure, for we cannot predict how and in what seemingly unrelated fields it will manifest itself. A nation that loses its forward thrust is in danger, and one of the most effective ways to retain that thrust is to keep exploring possibilities. The sense of exploration is intimately bound up with human resolve, and for a nation to believe that it is still committed to a forward motion is to ensure its continuance.” James A. Michener 1979

It is still hard to believe. But then Space Shuttles don’t blow up every day, but the Space Shuttle Challenger just beginning mission STS-51L on that cold and sunny Florida morning.

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Challenger’s crew

I guess that events like the explosion of Challenger remain with those that viewed them because they were unusual, historic and most of all, tragic. Yes we remember events of triumph as well, and they too make an imprint on our memories, but tragedies that impact a nation and the world touch us in a different and often more powerful way. I think this is because they expose to us our own mortality and vulnerability to things that we cannot control.

I know that I, like many others of my generation had grown up with the triumphs of the NASA manned space program. We had seen the incredible success of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.  Success and triumph were associated with the program. Even the tragic fire which consumed the command module of the Apollo I mission on January 27th 1967 during a launch pad test killing Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee did little to quench our belief in the program.

In 1972 as the Apollo program wound down a new program was developed to be a more affordable means to continue space travel and scientific study. The program became the Space Shuttle program built around reusable orbiters of which Challenger was the third built for the program.

By the time Challenger was being prepared for STS-51-L we had become to Shuttle missions being routine. NASA was launching a mission every two to three months.  Challenger was the second of two missions in January 1986, her sister Columbia having returned from a 6 day mission just 10 days before her launch.

This familiarity with the routine of the Shuttle program and expectation of success made many of us forget that space travel is inherently dangerous and that complex vehicles like the Shuttle were not indestructible.

The STS-51-L mission was to be the 10th for the Challenger in under three years of service. The mission had been delayed due to weather on the 22nd and rescheduled several times due to weather or in one case due to problems with an exterior access hatch.

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Challenger takes off on January 28th 1986

The morning of the launch the weather was predicted to be at or below the 31 degree minimum safe launch threshold. Engineers from the builder of the Challenger’s Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) Morton Thiokol contacted NASA with their concerns that the O-Rings which sealed the joints on the SRBs which they believed might not seal properly.  NASA engineers argued that even if the primary O-Ring failed that the secondary O-Ring would be sufficient even though this was an unproven theory. Eventually Thiokol management overruled their engineers influenced by NASA management which demanded that Thiokol prove that it was not safe to launch rather than prove that it was safe to launch. Considering it was a “Criticality 1” component meaning that there was no backup in case of a failure of both joints. It was a clear violation of protocol but the later Rogers Commission would show that NASA managers frequently ignored or evaded safety regulations to meet their very ambitious mission schedule. This decision doomed Challenger and her crew of seven.

On the 28th of January 1986 I was a young commander of the 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) in Wiesbaden Germany. I had heard about the scheduled launch of the Shuttle but paid it little regard, despite the presence if Christa McAuliffe, the first “teacher in space.” That evening was hoping to close out the day by 7PM which was early for me as well as most officers in the 68th Medical Group and 3rd Support Command of what we commonly called the Imperial Army on the Rhine, the US Army Europe.

I had a stack of work in my inbox, NCO evaluations, criminal investigations, maintenance reports and upcoming missions, not to mention trying to get a head start on my Unit Status Report. Most of my soldiers except those on duty had finished for the day.

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Challenger’s last moments

About 20 minutes to Six my senior duty person at the company, the Charge of Quarters or CQ in Army parlance came to my door which was at the far end of the hallway from where the CQ was stationed. Specialist Lisa Daley was a solid medic and outstanding soldier who had a great personality that caused her to be well liked in the company.  She came to my door and blurted out “Lieutenant Dundas! The Space Shuttle just blew up!”

I looked up from my desk and I remember my words to this day. “Specialist Daley, Space Shuttles don’t blow up.” She then said, “No sir they do, it’s on TV right now!”

I was stunned by her pronouncement. I got up and followed her as she told me what had happened. While I reached the CQ desk I saw the small television which she and her assistant CQ were watching. There was a live feed from CNN replaying the disaster, the twin plumes of smoke careening across the screen marking the spot where 73 seconds into the flight Challenger exploded. I stood there in shock, the images of the divergent plumes of smoke being etched into my mind.

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Atlantis landing on her final mission

It is hard to forget. 17 years later I was waiting for the arrival of General Peter Pace, then the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to arrive at Naval Station Mayport Florida for the Battle of Hue City Memorial weekend hosted by the USS HUE CITY. I got to the ship early and while drinking coffee in the Wardroom saw the news of the breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It brought back the images of the Challenger disaster. General Pace was delayed as the Joint Chiefs and National Security Council held an emergency meeting and arrived several hours late and when he arrived he spoke of the Challenger disaster along with the Columbia.

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The Shuttle program ended with the final mission of the Shuttle Atlantis in July 2011. As one that still dreams of the stars and manned space exploration I do hope that NASA is able to return to manned space missions and go beyond what we have done before. I hope that future programs including the Orion program and maybe manned missions to Mars and beyond can fulfill that ever hopeful opening dialogue of Star Trek: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” 

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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One Small Step for Man…One Giant Step for Mankind

I remember it like it was yesterday.  It was the stuff that dreams are made of the stuff that inspires a generation.  A tiny and fragile Lunar Module, the Eagle piloted by Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Bud Aldrin landed on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. Within hours the two men had made the first walk on the Moon.  Armstrong made the statement “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  In orbit above the Moon Astronaut Michael Collins piloted the Command Module Columbia. It was the stuff that legends are made of and help point humankind to higher and nobler goals.

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8rlwp_cbs-news-apollo-11-moon-landing-jul_shortfilms#from=embed

Shortly after he became President, John F. Kennedy promised to have a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.  His comments supporting the Apollo mission before a joint session of Congress are quite remarkable especially in light of the state of the technology available at the time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ouRbkBAOGEw&feature=player_embedded

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

The United Stateswholeheartedly threw itself into the race for the Moon and though Kennedy, struck dead by an assassin’s bullet nearly six years prior did not live to celebrate the occasion it was something that in a time of war and deep political division united the Nation.  It did not matter if one was a conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat the Space Program and in particular the Apollo missions made us glad to be Americans.  In the midst of trying times marked by racism and riots, political assassinations, anti-war protests and social unrest.

It was an amazing event which could have ended in disaster but instead helped us as a nation to aspire to higher and nobler goals. The landing on the Moon inspired many to study the sciences and Astronaut camps attended by children furthered that desire.  The invention, innovation and ingenuity sparked by the program helped birth more invention many times providing the basis for devices that are ubiquitous today but unthinkable except possibly to the writers of Star Trek then.

We dreamed and aspired to great things.  We were Americans then.  Now we have become a collection of deeply divided hatred filled special interests.  The last Space Shuttle mission that of the Atlantis will end tomorrow and no one knows what will follow.  But does it matter?

It probably doesn’t matter anymore because we have stopped dreaming or envisioning a hopeful future.  The Moon, Mars and beyond, forget that we need to sacrifice, well everyone but the people that put us in the mess we are in.

What does a space program matter when we are so divided against ourselves?

Our politician’s pundits and preachers of all political leanings and persuasions drive that poisonous wedge deeper every day and many willingly indulge in the “us against them” mentality promoted by those that beg us to listen to the “three hours a day every day.”

That Unholy Trinity of politicians, pundits and preachers seems so bent promoting their ideologies and theologies that they forget that they all have a responsibility to a nation that is greater than their respective faction, special interest and even religious views.  Now we have politicians signing statements written by special interests groups and there are an ever growing number of them, as if they were the Constitution, binding them and their fealty to unelected and unaccountable power brokers who have only their ideology to promote.  To see politicians shamelessly entering into such pacts to win a nomination or primary makes me wonder what they will do if they are elected to the offices that they aspire.

Back in 1969 the country was a mess, but when the Eagle touched down on the Sea of Tranquility we were Americans again.  We took a moment and believed again and we achieved again.  Unfortunately I don’t see anything at the present that will make us so again at least in the near future.  I fear for our country. Maybe it’s just my PTSD “Mad Cow” getting to me; maybe it is the fact that as a historian and theologian I know where the path we are traveling ends.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, philosophy, Political Commentary

Pinning on the Gold Bars: 28 Years Later

On June 19th 1983 I was sworn in as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army at the University of California Los Angeles.  I was a history major in college and had actually completed my degree the year prior and played around with Masters level classes as I took my last year of ROTC. I was commissioned into the Medical Service Corps and would report for active duty 22 days later at Fort Sam Houston Texas where I would complete the Army Medical Department Officer Basic Course for Medical Service Corps officers, go on to Fort Know Kentucky for the Junior Officer’s Maintenance Course and then in January 1984 head to Germany where I was assigned to the 557th Medical Company Ambulance in a little Kasserne on the Nahe River called Neubrücke.  The rest is history.

Looking back at what the world was like in 1983 is rather interesting. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States and George Herbert Walker Bush his Vice President. Thomas “Tip” O’Neill was Speaker of the House.  The internet and the TCP/IP was beginning to take flight as a program of the Department of Defense, Sally Ride had just become the first female Astronaut and the United States sent the Marines into Lebanon as part as a peacekeeping force.  The Soviets were deeply embroiled in Afghanistan while Jedi returned, destroyed the new Death Star, killed the Emperor and Darth Vader while redeeming Anakin Skywalker.

The Cold War was reaching its zenith as the United States using its great economic power built up its military and developed technologies that the Soviets went broke trying to keep up with.

We still wore Olive Green fatigues; the BDUs were just being introduced and the Army still worn Greens sans jaunty Black Beret.

The Billboard Top Singles were led by Michael Jackson who released Billie Jean http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBIfLxi5dLo, Culture Club with Karma Chameleon http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmcA9LIIXWw, Irene Cara joined in with Flashdance What a Feeling http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILWSp0m9G2U, David Bowie came out with Let’s Dance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyVjdQXNs9sand the Police had Every Breath You Take http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMOGaugKpzs.

The Baltimore Orioles won the 1983 World Series taking down the Philadelphia Phillies in 5 games, Rick Dempsey was the MVP hitting .385 in the series and having a .923 slugging percentage. Dempsey who played across 4 decades as a catcher only hit .233 for his career.  Cal Ripken Jr. made the final putout of the series which was the last that the Orioles have won since then.  In the NFL the Washington Redskins defeated the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. Larry Nelson edged out Tom Watson in the PGA U.S. Open while Jimmy Conners won the U.S Open Men’s Singles championship.

Terrorism, nuclear crises, political scandals and Tsunami in Japan were all part in the news.  AIDS was rearing its ugly head and by 1987 I was working with AIDS patients and dealing with personnel policy for HIV infected Soldiers.

Since that day I can only quote Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead that my life and career has been “a long strange trip.” I continue to serve in the military only having switched services to the Navy and going from being in the Medical Service Corps where I was a platoon leader, company XO and company commander as well as Brigade Adjutant to being a Chaplain.

Back in 1983 I had no intention of going into the ministry but somehow the Deity somehow worked that out much to my surprise.

Finally a mere six days after being commissioned I would marry the love of my life Judy Keiser and well somehow she has put up with me 28 years and hasn’t killed me yet, not that she didn’t want to a few times. Now we deal with a geographic separation due to my assignment after missing far more wedding anniversaries and birthdays than we have been together in our 28 year marriage.

Anyway, the future is still to be written and this long strange trip promises to go on. As Captain Kirk said in Star Trek VI “People think the future means the end of history, well, we haven’t run out of history just yet.” I don’t think that I have either.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, Batlimore Orioles, film, Military, movies, music

Remembering Challenger

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4JOjcDFtBE

About 5:30 PM on January 28th 1986 I was a young Army Medical Service Corps 1st Lieutenant in command of the 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) which was based on Wiesbaden Air Base in Wiesbaden Germany. I was hoping to close out the day by 7PM which was early for me as well as most officers in the 68th Medical Group and 3rd Support Command of the Imperial Army on the Rhine.

I had a stack of work in my inbox, NCO evaluations, criminal investigations, maintenance reports and upcoming missions, not to mention trying to get a head start on my Unit Status Report. Most of my soldiers except those on duty had finished for the day.

Back then communications and television for military personnel stationed overseas was primitive. The Armed Forces Network had one channel then and only recently had added live needs feeds from stateside news programs on CNN and morning shows such as NBC’s Today Show. By 1986 the Space Shuttle missions had become routine but this one was different because of a school teacher, Christa McAuliffe who was a payload specialist on the flight.

The Challenger was making her 10th flight in less than 3 years having first flown on April 4th 1983.  The mission STS-51-L had been delayed due to weather on the 22nd and rescheduled several times due to weather or in one case due to problems with an exterior access hatch.  The morning of the launch the weather was predicted to be at or below the 31 degree minimum safe launch threshold. Engineers from the builder of the Challenger’s Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) Morton Thiokol contacted NASA with their concerns that the O-Rings which sealed the joints on the SRBs which they believed might not seal properly.  NASA engineers argued that even if the primary O-Ring failed that the secondary O-Ring would be sufficient even though this was an unproven theory. Eventually Thiokol management overruled their engineers influenced by NASA management which demanded that Thiokol prove that it was not safe to launch rather than prove that it was safe to launch. Considering it was a “Criticality 1” component meaning that there was no backup in case of a failure of both joints. It was a clear violation of protocol but the later Rogers Commission would show that NASA managers frequently ignored or evaded safety regulations to meet their very ambitious mission schedule. This decision doomed Challenger and her crew of seven.

I had heard that the Challenger was to launch that morning in Florida which of course was the early evening for us in Germany.  However I had seen numerous shuttle launches on television, considered them routine and by then rather uninteresting.  Since I was a very junior 1st Lieutenant commanding a company forward deployed with a mission to race to the Fulda Gap in the event of a Soviet invasion of West Germany up to my ears in work I had no interest in watching another one.

Challenger disintegrates (BBC Photo)

About 20 minutes until 6 my senior duty person at the company, the Charge of Quarters or CQ in Army parlance came to my door which was at the far end of the hallway from where the CQ was stationed. Specialist Lisa Daley was a solid medic and outstanding soldier who had a great personality that caused her to be well liked in the company.  She came to my door and blurted out “Lieutenant Dundas! The Space Shuttle just blew up!”

I looked up from my desk and I remember my words to this day. “Specialist Daley, Space Shuttles don’t blow up.” She then said, “No sir they do, it’s on TV right now!” That startled me. I grew up with the space program and remembered the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Although I remember the fire on Apollo 1 which killed three astronauts on the launch pad, but that was different, no American spacecraft had ever been lost though Apollo 13 was nearly lost while on a Moon mission.

I got up and followed her as she told me what had happened. While I reached the CQ desk I saw the small television which she and her assistant CQ were watching. There was a live feed from CNN replaying the disaster, the twin plumes of smoke careening across the screen.  I was stunned and will never forget the image that I saw with my soldiers that day.

Seventeen years after that event I was waiting at the Naval Air Station at Mayport Florida for General Peter Pace.  General Pace who was then the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was coming to be the guest speaker at the Battle of Hue City Memorial weekend hosted by the USS Hue City. I got to the ship early and while drinking coffee in the Wardroom saw the news of the breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It brought back the images of the Challenger disaster. General Pace was delayed as the Joint Chiefs and National Security Council held an emergency meeting and arrived several hours late and when he arrived he spoke of the Challenger disaster along with the Columbia.

There are two more shuttle flights scheduled before the program ends this year. An era will be ever. The shuttles will pass into history and unfortunately for many the signature moment of the program will not be the many successes it will be the Challenger disaster and the images shown on CNN that cold and clear Tuesday in 1983.

The brave astronauts of all of our space programs deserve our highest admiration. The Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle programs pioneered space travel. We should not forget their sacrifices especially those that gave the last full measure especially those that we remembered yesterday. Ronald Reagan ended his short speech the evening of the Challenger’s demise with this line:

“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

As a child I grew up with the space program and Star Trek. It is my hope that manned missions aboard better and more capable space ships capable of reaching the far reaches of this solar system and the galaxy will be built and humanity’s constant desire for exploration and discovery will herald a better future.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under History, traumatic national events