The Challenger Disaster, 24 Years After
Added: Thu. Jan 28, 2010 4:43pm
Posted in: Space
It happened 24 years ago today. Do you remember what you were doing? Where you were? What you thought? I do. I was a reporter at the NBC-TV affiliate in Orlando. From right outside the door, if you looked to the east you'd have a great view of every launch. We'd watch the countdown on television, and when they'd get to "liftoff" we'd have about fifteen seconds to dash out the door to follow the billowing white vapor trail up to the bright gold ball pushing the gleaming sliver across the sky, higher and higher until it would finally vanish out of sight. We'd seen it over and over again.
Like everyone else, we had come to take shuttle launches for granted. They were pretty automatic, no big deal. Maybe that's why this one hit us all so hard. It was halfway up the sky when it burned into our memories forever. There was no doubt when it did. But nobody said a word. Complete silence. Paralyzed by disbelief. As the one vapor trail fractured into many, then curved to arch back towards the earth our minds raced through every other conceivable explanation, other than the one we knew was true.
From that moment, until the shock wore off, everyone in the nation all had the same questions running over and over in our minds. How long did they live? Were they aware of what happened? Could they have survived? The answer is yes. They could have survived. They should have survived. Joe Kittinger had risked his life to make sure they could.
Jet planes and the space race were pushing manned vehicles higher and faster than ever before. There were many questions as to whether a crew could survive ejecting at high altitudes. Kittinger's project was to prove that they could.
On August 16th, 1960, the Air Force Captain climbed into a gondola under a high-altitude helium balloon, rode it up 102,800 feet, just about 20 miles to the very edge of space, said a prayer, and jumped. To this day, no one has jumped from that height. No one has free-fallen longer, 4 minutes and 36 seconds with only the aid of a stabilizer chute.
Kittinger did not do it to set records. He did not do it for personal fame or glory. He did it to try to save lives. The technology developed and the knowledge gained was enough to save the Challenger crew, but shuttle designers chose not to include it.
It's been 50 years since Kittinger made that jump. No one else has come close to besting it. The biggest challenge to that record will happen later this year when Felix Baumgartner attempts to jump from 120,000 feet. He and Kittinger have been working together on the project for two years. There is still much to be learned, and much to be gained. A half-century later, it's no easier, no less dangerous. The potential for disaster is still, well, sky high.
Next to the Kennedy assassination, no other instant in time has burned itself into more memories than the Challenger disaster. Because of information gained from Kittinger’s long, lonely leap, there's the chance the shuttle disaster could have been averted. Now, Baumgartner will go where only one man has gone before. Lets hope he's successful. Lets hope we learn even more. And this time, lets use the knowledge. Lets not make the same mistake again.