Tag Archives: space travel

“Don’t Be Silly, Space Shuttles Don’t Explode” Challenger at 34 Years


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is still so hard to believe that thirty-four years ago we were stunned to see the Space Shuttle Challenger blow up shortly after launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

I don’t know about you, but it shocked the hell out of me. I am a child of the 1960s and 1970s when the United States was setting the pace on the exploration of space. Manned missions to the moon had become commonplace, the Space Shuttle Program appeared to be a jumping off point for further exploration. Space stations that would be able to conduct scientific research and maybe even serve as launching and logistics centers for the exploration of Mars and beyond.

Back when I was a kid and young adult the space program captivated us, and coupled with the hope presented in Star Trek, where human beings of all races and nationalities would work with alien races who had similar values explored the far reaches of the galaxy, anything seemed possible. Then, in one moment, the dream imploded as the Challenger exploded. Truthfully, it hasn’t been the same since.

That afternoon I was still at work as the Commanding Officer of the 557th Medical Company, (Ambulance). It was about 20 minutes till six and I was completing paperwork from an Article 15 proceeding, and looking over our end of the month Unit Status Report (USR) drafts.

It was about that time that my Charge Of Quarters, Specialist Lisa Dailey came charging into my office. She cried out “Lieutenant Dundas, the Space Shuttle just blew up!” I looked up from my paperwork and said, “Don’t be silly, space shuttles don’t blow up.” Such was my faith in technology and the dreams of the space program and Star Trek in my mind.

She couldn’t believe my response, because she had just seen it in real time. That was not long after the Armed Forces Network or AFN started broadcasting CNN and other U.S. based news programs in real time. CNN just happened to be televising the launch of Challenger. Specialist Dailey, who I still remain in contact with said “no sir, I just saw it, it’s on TV right now.”

With that I got up and went with her to the television where I stood transfixed as I watched the endless replays of the event. It was so unbelievable. Never before had a U.S. space mission failed to at last get into space, and it was a body blow to the space program. The shuttle program continued, but it wasn’t the same. There were many more successful missions, many in support of the International Space Station, but they became routine and many people didn’t follow them. Truthfully, I was like many people, I didn’t pay much attention to them after the Space Shuttle program regained steam and achieved success after success.

But then, some seventeen years later on February 1st 2003 I was sitting drinking coffee in the Wardroom Of the USS HUE CITY, waiting for the arrival of General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Veteran of the Battle Of Hue City. General Pace was our guest speaker at the annual,Battle Of Hue City Memorial. He was remembered fondly by the Marines who served with him at Hue City as their Lieutenant. As I waited the wardroom Television was tuned to CNN which was covering the re-entry of the Space Shuttle Columbia. As I watched the coverage Columbia broke up on re-entry over Texas and Louisiana. General Pace was delayed in his arrival due to an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, but he did arrived. However, for the seconded time in my life I witnessed the destruction of a Space Shuttle, but by then I would never again make the comment “Don’t be silly, Space Shuttles don’t explode.”

Honestly, I want to live to see the day when human beings land of Mars, and to really dream when humanity achieves the capacity for faster than light space travel, or as it is called in Star Trek, “Warp Speed.” I would love to live to see first contact with a friendly Alien race like the Vulcans of Star Trek. I still dream, but I know that there are risks, and that in such undertakings that lives will be lost, that there will be tragedies, but that is the price of human progress.

As the entity called Q told Jean Luc Picard in the Star Trek Next Generation episode Q Who:

“If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here! It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross…but it’s not for the timid.”

I remember and mourn those lost aboard Challenger and Columbia, but I pray that their sacrifice in the name of humanity will not be forgotten, nor their quest abandoned.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, star trek

“One Giant Step” at 50 Years

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I remember it like it was yesterday, and it was 50 years ago.  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 ColumbiaIt 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 States wholeheartedly 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, but more so Republicans than Democrats 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, at least for a few days.  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 under President Trump ends.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Travel

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