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Jan 28 2011

Challenger: 25 Years Ago

25 years ago today I hung up the telephone in my office on U.S. 1 in Titusville, Florida, and walked outside in the unusually frigid Florida air to watch yet another space shuttle launch.  Friends who worked for NASA at the time had told me that no launch was routine and that the statistics were such that some in the agency considered it likely they would lose a space shuttle at some point over the years.  So I found myself getting a little nervous whenever a launch would take place.  That morning I looked up into the blue eastern sky over the waters of the Indian River, as we almost always did during Space Shuttle launches since we were as close as you could get without being on NASA property.

But this time was different.  This time we watched in horror and disbelief as the space shuttle called “Challenger” fell to earth in pieces after experiencing a fiery catastrophic failure 73 seconds after launch.

Tourists standing around applauded, thinking it was part of the booster rocket separation process.

The rest of us who lived and grew up on the east coast and had seen previous launches knew better.  As we watched the smoke dissipate and debris fall–some with contrails, some without–we knew that barring some kind of miracle, all seven astronauts were likely dead, or soon would be if they were in a free fall headed towards the ocean.  We breathed silent prayers.  Others swore.

The NASA radio broadcasts quickly confirmed our fears…there had been “obviously a  major malfunction.”

Later that day I went to a business leaders luncheon.  We all were just stunned and in a state of disbelief at what we had just witnessed.  No one said much.  No one joked.  This wasn’t a movie, or a Disney World ride.  It was real life.

Within days, a customer of mine who worked for one of the key contractors in the space program, Morton-Thiokol, was in my office finishing up some business and the conversation turned to the future of the space program.  He told me the reason for the failure was clear: the effect of the sub-freezing temperatures on the solid rocket booster “O-rings”.  That launch took place over the objections of the engineers responsible for them, he said.   Somehow that information/concern was not relayed all the way up the communications chain to NASA senior management, and it failed to reach the Launch Director responsible for giving the final go for launch.   Many months later a Congressional Investigation came to the same conclusion.

The space program ground to a  halt.  Within a year and a half I relocated north to Atlanta.

Today NASA hosted a Memorial Service in honor of those pioneers whose lives were lost in mission “STS-51-L.”  America is in their debt.

Aerospace technology is absolutely amazing.  It still makes my head swim to think of all that goes into a launch of an Orbiter into space.  The people at NASA are nothing short of remarkable.  Lots of friends and their parents worked there in 1986.  Some still work there.   Some glued tiles onto the shuttle.  Others gave direction and made decisions at the highest of levels, working under pressure most of us cannot comprehend.

The Bible notes in Psalm 20:7 that some tend to find a sense of security in chariots and horses, but Christians are to find a sense of security in the Lord.  Today in America we might substitute “technology, politicians, and the US Government” for the outdated terms of chariots and horses since we have long since moved beyond agrarian days.

Sometimes things happen that shake our faith in those earthly things,  redirecting our sense of security and focus to eternal matters rather than temporal ones.  25 years ago was one of those times.

Josh Riley

Husband, father, teacher, coach, business management consultant, real estate guy, program manager, children's discipleship leader, weatherbug, writer, speaker, workshop presenter, 176 other things and founder of worship.com.

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About the author

Josh Riley

Husband, father, teacher, coach, business management consultant, real estate guy, program manager, children's discipleship leader, weatherbug, writer, speaker, workshop presenter, 176 other things and founder of worship.com.