Challenger 30 Years Later

"Everyone knows how they died, we want people to remember how they lived."June Scobee-Rodgers, widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee

(author unknown)
At 10:40 am on January 28th 1986 the space shuttle Challenger was issued the command "go for throttle up" and the subsequent explosion ended space’s age of innocence. I remember where I was that day. Like most of our memories of those kinds of events, it is probably full of holes and exaggerations.  But I do remember it.  I also remember honoring the Challenger crew's sacrifice with the crew of the (can you remember the name before you read it?) Columbia.  For quite some time my personal page at ranthonysteele.com had a memorial page for the Columbia and Challenger as a tribute to the sacrifice of both crews.
High Flight
(the pilot's creed)

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth 
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; 
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds,
--and done a hundred things 
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung 
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there, 
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung 
My eager craft through footless falls of air... 
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue 
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace 
Where never lark, nor eer eagle flew-- 
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod 
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space, 
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee
The above was found in a particularly moving article by Nigel Rees (on another now dead website) describing how the poem came to prominence and caught the attention of Ronald Reagan (or one of his speechwriters) who later remembered it and uttered it in memoriam for the Challenger crew. It was the words of Columbia commander Rick Husband that caused me to go looking for the poem back in 2003, when he unknowingly forshadowed his impending death by observing;
It is today that we remember and honor the crews of Apollo 1 and Challenger. They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives and service to their country and for all mankind 
Four days later, his shuttle burned up on re-entry.  I was awakened from an uneasy sleep that Saturday morning, by the ringing of the phone.  One of our fellow space enthusiast friends calling to tell us to turn on the news.  Columbia had been destroyed.

Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia, whose crews were all killed within the space of a week on the calendar, if over 36 years in elapsed time. That is the way it has been for ten years and more for me.  I've kept notations on my calendar since the Columbia disaster, so that I could remember these crews and their sacrifices on the anniversaries of their deaths.

Space.com
The space program means a lot to the Wife and I.  She's become so heartbroken that we still don't have a permanent lunar base for her to immigrate to that she refuses to discuss the subject of space in any other form than as a betrayal by the US government of the people of the nation, especially people like she and I who dreamed of going to space someday.  My balance issues convinced me long before I became disabled that I would never have made it to space anyway, so I don't take the betrayal personally.  But it is hard to argue that we weren't lied to when the ISS is a shadow of its promised size and scope, and that moon vacations still aren't a thing we can experience.  Not to mention the complete abdication of NASA's involvement in space as it pertains to getting supplies to and from the ISS, the reliance on Russia to transfer astronauts to and from the station via 1960's Soyuz technology.  These are dark days for space enthusiasts when it comes to manned space missions.

So I was a little surprised that I hadn't noted that today was Challenger day until listening to the BBC World News podcast. As I frequently do, I paused the program and went over to the browser on my phone and inquired about current articles on the Challenger disaster that might be worth sharing.

Top of the list was this piece over at Gawker. It is probably worth mentioning that I have a love/hate relationship with Gawker, the name of the website itself recalls miles of freeway made impassable by hundreds if not thousands of people who just have to look at automobile accidents. Maybe I'm weird, but I can still summon up images from my high school drivers education classes, so I don't need a refresher on just how we lemmings die encased in steel on US freeways.

The subject of the article was even more enraging than a freeway pile-up that keeps you from getting where you need to be until several hours late, though;
...after the disaster, over time, a different and more horrible story took shape: The Challenger made it through the spectacular eruption of its external fuel tank with its cabin more or less intact. Rather than being carried to Heaven in an instant, the crippled vessel kept sailing upward for another three miles before its momentum gave out, then plunged 12 miles to the ocean. The crew was, in all likelihood, conscious for the full two and a half minutes until it hit the water.
This particular bit of conspiratorial fantasy really isn't news.  The briefest perusal of the wiki entry on the subject of the Challenger disaster will reveal that it has been premised that the astronauts survived the initial breakup. It isn't even controversial anymore. There is little evidence either way on the subject, and knowing they survived (or that the crew of the just as tragic Columbia disaster survived) the initial breakup only to be killed later really doesn't prove anything, or provide any great insight into either tragedy.

I remember picking up at least one supermarket tabloid in the months after Challenger went down that purported to have written transcripts of the last moments of the crew as preserved on the flight recorder.  That concoction was a total fantasy, beneath even the satirical minds of the writers of the Onion today; and the grisly nature of interest in the last moments of the life of a person about to die tragically is something that I've never had the stomach for.  That there would have been panic from trained military flyers even in the face of certain doom is very doubtful. As more than one pilot has mentioned to me over the years, the most common last words on flight recorders is oh, shit.  That is because trained pilots are too busy working the problem to realize that ultimate failure is about to kill them until the last moment. When it is too late to panic and have that panic recorded for posterity.

NASA image STS 107 launch
Some of the experiments survived
The pilots of Challenger and Columbia were both powerless to save themselves and their crews. That is the true nature of these tragedies.  The decisions that cost their lives were made by people above them in authority, people who were willing to risk the lives of others even when the engineers who designed those systems stood solidly against launching under the weather conditions present at the time.

Failure of the O-rings caused the Challenger disaster. It is doubtful that a parachute system or some other secondary contingency could have worked in the specific scenario the evolved in that launch. There was a way to decouple the shuttle from the tank and glide home, but that contingency failed with the explosion of the central fuel tank.

Ice and foam chunks damaged the leading edge of the wing of Columbia during its last launch.  There was no way to rescue the crew once they were in space without risking another crew flying under similar conditions, if the next shuttle could have even been made ready in time. Thinking back to the steely-eyed missile men who brought Apollo 13 back home, one wonders what they might have done if they had still been in charge when Columbia was in space.  Would they have risked an EVA to check the wing? Probably. Would they have found a way to get a rescue mission up to Columbia in time to get the crew off?  Maybe. Was there some way to seal the wing in space so it could survive re-entry? People familiar with the mission said no, still say no.

Hindsight is always 20/20. There would have been no need for a parachute contingency (and the added weight/cost) had NASA listened to its own engineers in 1986, because they recommended a scrub and were over-ruled on the subject.  A similar discussion occurred just prior to the launch of Columbia as well.

I have recommended this book several times on the blog, Deadly Decisions: How False Knowledge Sank the Titanic, Blew Up the Shuttle, and Led America into War.  If you really want to understand just how stupidly large human systems fail, read that book.  You will come away with a completely different view on history and on current events.  The failures of the shuttle missions in particular remain haunting to the American psyche in ways that so many of our other failures do not. Perhaps this is because they touch on the hopes and dreams of so many. Perhaps because they remain the most visible black marks on the aspirations of this country.

New York Daily News
Personally they represent the end of manned space exploration missions in my lifetime. That is what I think of most bitterly when I recall the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. I remember the teacher Christa McAuliffe and her brave, hopeful words.  Her energetic wave as she boarded the transport heading for the shuttle.  I remember thinking upon hearing of the shuttle's destruction there goes my chance to get into space.  Because that is what it meant, what the tragedy still means to me to this day. The end of hope for a brighter future.  With that knowledge comes acceptance of our limitations as human animals and a greater understanding of just how fragile we creatures are. How fragile our home is.

We may be stuck on this rock for awhile yet, so we probably should figure out how to keep it safe for the time being. Try to avoid that next big thing heading our way.  What is it? Only the future knows.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
Hanlon's Razor

Blizzard 2016

Tiny snowflakes fell like radioactive jewels. The streets were deserted. Electric lights were few. Cars were abandoned alongside the road. As I crossed the Beltway, I could see hungry zombies roaming the empty streets below.  
I was followed briefly by a State Trooper, but when he saw my Alaska plates he waved me on with a brave thumbs up. Godspeed, Northman!  
Andrews AFB was dark, the great warbirds frozen in rigor mortis on the ramps beneath a load of snow at least an 1/8th of an inch thick. 
Jim Wright, Stonekettle Station
Watching Weather Channel coverage of winter storm Jonas today, myself.  Like Jim, I am amused by the panic that most people seem to be swallowed by when the weather becomes less than optimal outside.  He posted this video of Jimmy Buffett's tribute to enduring cold weather as an afterthought;





Living in Austin for the last twenty years, I have learned to be cautious when the weather is anything other than warm and sunny. If it rains here I stay home. If it ices here, I stay home. These people are nuts on ice and water. If it clouds over and starts to rain, Austinites slide off the roads by the hundreds. Blows my mind.

There was a common joke that circulated back in the years I lived in San Angelo. "There are only three things in West Texas that can kill you; the weather, the animals, and West Texans on ice." I remember riding shotgun in a friend's car during a pretty impressive snowstorm, traveling back to Sweetwater from the TSTC campus that was just outside of town. The snow was packed across the road, with drifts on the sides of the road. This journey sticks in my mind because it had never occurred to me that some people did not know how to drive on slick surfaces before. I looked over at the speedometer and noticed he was doing 50+ on snow, no snow tires, chains, etc. I commented that he might want to slow down since it was slick. He applied some brakes (never apply brakes on slick surfaces) the car started to spin gently sideways. Brakes applied in full locked mode, we continued to spin until we were traveling backwards down the highway at 50 miles an hour. luckily we hit a snowbank and stopped before hitting anything else.  We did make it to our destination, eventually.

I grew up in Kansas, learned to drive in Kansas. In Kansas the snow starts falling in September and continues falling off and on until April. We had blizzards in Kansas like the one currently hitting the Eastern coast pretty much every year.  Somewhere around this house I have pictures of the Wichita County High School in the 50's, snow drifts up to the second floor of the school. Learning to drive in Kansas involved driving in snow and ice conditions, pretty much constantly.  Following a snowplow through rural Kansas in order to get to a city with a commercial center was a pretty common occurrence.  I tell you all this so that it is clear, I've seen snow. I've driven in snow.

Sitting in traffic in my brand new car, small child strapped into the car seat behind me, I have watched while the vehicles around me literally bowl over other cars already visibly stuck on an icy overpass. Watched while people attempt to escape their cars on the bridge, only to slide headlong under the car because the surface is that slick.  That day I waited patiently for traffic to clear, idling my way home on back roads as soon as I could get away from the demolition derby that was occurring on the freeway. That is Austin when there is the slightest amount of precipitation on the roadways, much less when there is an actual freeze.

Snowman from the blizzard of 2010
There are times when I will venture forth in inclement weather here.  Specific events that I know will keep most people off the roads.  We had a snowstorm that actually stuck to the ground in Austin back in 1994ish. There was snow all over the roads across the city. With the snow visible I knew that most of Austin would roll back over and go to sleep, so it was probably safe for me to venture out and enjoy a relaxed drive to work for a change.

It was the most pleasant commute of my working life. The city was abandoned, as far as I could tell. Not a vehicle to be seen on the freeways, the side roads, anywhere. I just sipped my coffee and idled the 3 or 4 miles to work. The most troubling part of the trip was the steep downhill on 19th street to the Lamar Blvd. intersection. Knowing there would be no stopping on that hill, I just kept it in first gear and let gravity do all the work.  I did see several vehicles abandoned on the uphill side of the road (poor souls, I thought) then I turned right onto Lamar and idled into the office parking garage.

I got more work done in the 6 hours it took for the snow to melt and the rest of Austin to make it out to work than I probably did the rest of that week. The rest of the office marveled at the daring exhibited by venturing out on snowy roads. "How did you do it?" they asked. "Just another day's commute where I grew up" I replied. Didn't even have to follow a snowplow, so it was easy.


The State of the Union Requires No Response

As I have confessed previously, I watch the State of the Union address pretty much every year as a matter of course. Some years I grit my teeth and bear it, some years I have to watch it with an accompanying joke track (the only thing I tolerate an MST3K treatment for is politics) since Barack Obama has been President, I've pretty much sat down to watch with something akin to interest if not utter fascination.

The State of the Union address is provided for in the Constitution, Article 2, Section 3;
"He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient"
George Washington and John Adams delivered the address in person. Jefferson, who hated the pomp that surrounded much of the Presidency, declined to give the address in person and had it sent to Congress to be read by the clerk. Every President followed Jefferson's example until the time of Woodrow Wilson. Carter was the most recent President to decline to address congress in person.

I'm not sure which is more disdainful of the legislature, to have the President speak to them directly or to have his message read to Congress by the clerk. But I can say with pretty firm conviction that the worst and most presumptuous idea ever hatched in American politics is the response to the State of the Union crafted by the opposition party and read by some sacrificial lamb that they've convinced to stand up and embarrass themselves before the nation.

The President speaks for the people when he delivers his message; that is the point of it. Here is this year's State of the Union address;


It has been patently obvious to this concerned voter, pretty much since I started viewing and reading these speeches, that the majority of the content was pretty uncontroversial. At least, uncontroversial at the time. What history teaches is another thing entirely. And yet, every single time that a speech is delivered these days, someone is tapped from the opposition party to make pretense that the content of the President's address is incorrect in some real fashion.

In the years since 2008, this tendency to pose in mock outrage before the camera has fractured, though.  Not content to offer just one critique, for the last few years the various factions of the opposition have felt that they needed to voice their particular flavor of outrage lest their self-importance be forgotten.

This year was no different. In fact, the clamor for attention after the SOTU was delivered has been comic in proportion. From what I can gather, virtually every Republican member of the House of Representatives felt they had to personally put the President in his place.  Here is the video posted by the bloviating windbag that pretends to represent my section of Austin;


I say bloviating because, like all of the statements in opposition, this one is made up largely of nothing but air. They could have showed up and simply yelled fear! fear! fear! repeatedly for all the facts contained in the (mercifully) short responses.

I am regularly spammed by this... person (and both the Senators for my state) Having unwittingly corresponded with his office, I am now permanently on his spam list, as if I have any interest in anything these Republicans might say.

Which leads me back to the adjective, pretends. Pretends to Represent. This is demonstrable. Austin is overwhelmingly liberal. Not going to change at any point that is discernible to residents within Austin.  They were dope smoking, nude sunbathing hippies long before I got here, and the weed has not gotten less potent with time.  Willie makes sure of that.

The leadership of this state is elected by the rest of Texas which is angry and conservative. (medical marijuana should help with that. Talk to your doctor!) They have taken it upon themselves to attempt to remove the only liberal Representative from Texas by breaking the only liberal areas IN Texas into as many districts as they can reasonably separate them into.  So Austin doesn't have one or two districts, which would be liberal.  No, Austin is split into no less than 5 different districts, with my district being a narrow strip through the center of Austin that then spreads out to cover 9 additional COUNTIES in Texas so as to dilute the Democratic vote in central Austin and place it in the hands of this... person.

It is also worth noting that the Republicans who have controlled this state since the dear departed Ann Richards was unseated by the then owner of the Texas Rangers, George W. Bush (you've probably heard of him) have failed at their dream of removing all traces of the stain of liberalism from their great state because they not only have one liberal member to caucus with, they now have two.

Back to the subject at hand.  This pretender who poses as my Representative (not that I liked the Democrat he replaced. That is another story) helpfully emailed me the text of his response, a further mercy that saves me from having to endure the sound of his voice.  Here is a snippet;
It’s been seven years since President Barack Obama took office. In that time, the United States has accumulated the largest national debt in its history, the fewest number of adults are working since Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the executive branch has expanded its power immensely – the president has chosen which laws to enforce and created new ones without Congress’ approval.  
Just the first paragraph. I can't stomach the rest of the twisted realities presented. The first paragraph is enough anyway, because it shows the agenda of the response, of all the responses. It is the same theme I pointed out last year, the Republicans are in it for the power alone. The welfare of the general populace be damned, we have a budget to manage! Never mind that the sitting President has presided over the least spending of any President since Eisenhower, or that he has been the deportation President and the anti-drug President and the terrorist-fighting President to a tune that dwarfs the last two holders of that office, that is not good enough. Truthfully nothing would be good enough.

Democrats Organizing for America
Obama came into office with an olive branch, and the Republicans batted it away.  He adopted their policies and positions, and they abandoned them for even more radical conservative positions, taking stances on subjects like healthcare that are frankly hard to fathom. So the poor should be left to die without care? Am I understanding you correctly? We should send the children who surrendered to our border guards voluntarily, back to the gang-run South American states they fled from, so that they can be forced to join gangs or become their sex slaves?  Seriously, what is it conservatives expect to be done about these very real problems that they simply try to wish away?

Last night, Obama once again offered an olive branch to the Republicans. He went so far as to praise the new Speaker of the House, even though his work has been limited to actually doing the job that the previous Speaker simply couldn't cope with. The Republican response? To once again bat the offer of cooperation away.  Cooperation means progress, and progress means hope. Give the people hope and they might actually vote without fear in the next election. Republican victory is grounded on a fearful voting public.

The most promising part of the State of the Union address?  Obama's statement that he intends to campaign to fix the gerrymandered districts that plague the House of Representatives in many other states aside from my own. I welcome his help in getting sensible, non-partisan rules for redistricting put into place.  It is about time someone took this issue seriously. maybe then Austin will have a real Representative in Washington. Hope springs eternal.