February 1, 2003: Exactly 17 years ago today I wrote an online
editorial about the loss of Challenger. It is equally applicable to
today's tragic loss of Columbia. The comments with which I preceded it
when I first posted it at this site are also all too relevant. So I have
nothing to add, except to pay tribute specifically to Columbia's heroic
crew, whose names now join the ranks of those who have given their lives
for the future welfare of all humanity.
This was my reaction to the Challenger tragedy, first published February
1, 1986 in Participate(R) on The Source, a non-Internet conferencing
system that preceded the Web. At that time I was one of its volunteer
moderators and on the staff of its weekly online magazine Chimo,
and I posted this as an editorial. Now, coming across it in my files 15
years later, it still seems worth posting. Someday--I trust not in the
near future--it's bound to become timely again.
Sooner or later, if we migrate into space, others will die there. And I
am not sure that the widespread attitude toward this inescapable fact is
any more realistic than it was in 1986. Death on the highway, in the
air, and on mountaintops is viewed as tragic, yet hardly as grounds for
abandoning cars, planes, or dangerous sports. Death in space alone
has been perceived by the public as a peril that shouldn't be allowed to
exist. We won't become a spacefaring species until we realize that in
venturing beyond our planet, we will not leave behind any of the natural
consequences of being human--of which our mortality is indisputably the most
The First Death
Written February 1, 1986
It has come and gone: the day I've been dreading for the past
quarter-century. The day that had to arrive sometime, yet that I, like
everyone else, had hoped could be put off forever. I knew, as everyone
knows, that the world isn't like that, or more properly speaking, that
the universe isn't. No human endeavor is free of tragedy. Still we are
all stunned, horror-stricken, when tragedy comes.
It has long been my conviction that expansion into space is a natural
and essential step in human evolution. I believe our species
can't survive without moving beyond our native planet, and in this I
differ from many who believe merely that making discoveries about the
universe is a good thing to do.
But we can't move into space without the support of the public, and a
large share of the public doesn't view the space program as necessary to
human survival. So inevitably, I worried far in advance about the public
effect of a space disaster.
The astronauts worried, too. They have all known the risk, and many have
made statements that if anything should happen, the program must go on.
After all, nobody would ride a rocket of incredible explosive potential
into orbit without confidence that, in the words of Virgil Grissom who
died in the Apollo ground test fire, "The conquest of space is worth the
risk of life."
But the public doesn't acknowledge this risk as astronauts do. That has
always puzzled me. Why is it different from the widely accepted risks of
aviation, a field that cost countless lives in its early years and is
still subject to frequent well-publicized disasters? We had 25 years of
space flight, 55 American missions in a row without a single in-flight
fatality; this was an almost miraculous record. Statistically we were
overdue for an accident. Why should it have been felt that space travel,
unlike any other pioneering venture in human history, would be blessed
forever with freedom from everyday harsh reality?
Today I came upon what I think may be the answer in a beautifully
written piece posted to a local electronic bulletin board. The writer
suggested that to many people space wasn't part of reality. "They seem
to think that, like a television show with good guys and bad guys,
everything will come out well in the end and good will always triumph
over evil," she wrote. "They reacted with shock and horror, perhaps
partly because the space program `wasn't real to them. After all, the
good guys always survive."
Is this true? Is what we do in space no more real to the American public
than Star Trek? I like Star Trek and other space fiction because I think
it says something, albeit not very literally, about the real future. Did
others like real space launches because they seemed to turn life into a
We are no longer in the fantasy world. We are all aware now that every
step of human advancement has its price. And yet we really should not
think of tragedy as a price, as if there were a choice about paying it;
for death is inherent in the human condition. We are all going to die,
and personally I'd feel privileged to die in space rather than in some
futile way on the ground. Most of us, underneath, would prefer to die.
for a cause; and the cause of my choice, if I were offered a choice,
would be space humanization.
Space humanization: the very words imply that space is the frontier for
all aspects of human existence. One by one, we've watched the
"firsts": first man in orbit, first spacewalk, first moon landing, first
woman in space, first black, first private citizen ... and now the first
death. Where humans go, death must go also; has anyone ever really.
The names of the Challenger Seven will be forever enshrined among our
most honored "firsts." Perhaps their greatest legacy to us will be a
new perception that advancement into space is not a game or a show, but
If this perception prevails, then the next space milestone of equal
significance will be the first birth.
Posrscript, 2017: At the time of the Challenger disaster I was astonished by the widespread public feeling that it meant space travel shouldn’t be undertaken, and especially that the civilian teacher Christa McAuliffe shouldn’t have been “sent” into space, as if she hadn’t been chosen out of thousands of applicants who vied for the chance to go. The supposition, sometimes even explicitly stated, that she hadn’t known it was dangerous was an insult to both her courage and her intelligence. Who could possibly be unaware that riding in a spacecraft propelled by rocket engines and boosters providing 7.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff involves risk? As suggested in the essay above, perhaps previous space flights had been viewed if they were fantasy. But I now think there was more to it than that.
It would simply not have been rational for anyone ever to think space travel isn’t dangerous; the evidence that it’s unsafe could hardly have come as a surprise. And even if it did, dangers involving far greater numbers of people, such as those of early aviation, had been accepted by the public without question. No one said that pilots shouldn’t be allowed to take off in primitive planes. although the crash rate was extremely high. Planes, however, did not get very far from the ground. There was no possibility that improved ones would leave the planet and enter unknown regions beyond. I suspect that the realization that space travel is real came not with the tragedy of Challenger, but with the Apollo moon fights, and that Challenger brought to the surface unconscious feelings that had been building up for a long time. Underneath, people were troubled not by the danger to the astronauts but by the potential perils of contact with the wider universe. (See my essay Confronting the Universe in the Twenty-First Century in The Space Review.) The Challenger disaster was merely the trigger for expression of the public’s growing uneasiness about spacefaring.