The Challenger and Risk, 25 Years Later

Hi Readers! It’s been a quarter century since the Challenger blew up. Below is part of an interview by the Houston Chronicle’s “Science Guy,” Eric Berger, with Gerald Griffin, who led three lunar landings, was “pivotal” in the Apollo 13 recovery and left his job as director of the Johnson Space Center just a few weeks before the Challenger disaster.

I excerpt it here because I think Griffin’s right: Our attitude toward risk has changed dramatically over the last 25 years, and with it, our acceptance of ANY risk when it comes to raising kids. I am no fan of needless risk, or courting danger. But I do believe that trying to create an entirely risk-free world is not only a fool’s errand, it is stultifying to the human spirit — especially when it’s young and formative. – L

ERIC BERGER: It strikes me that after the Columbia accident there was a fairly expansive debate on whether we should continue the shuttle, and whether we needed to be sending humans into space at all. Did that kind of debate go on after Challenger?

GERALD GRIFFIN: I can almost put those in a plot, or a graph, if you will. Back in the Apollo era when the fire occurred, and three people died on the pad, to my knowledge there was no one who said we should end our attempt to get to the moon. It didn’t come up in the government and it didn’t come up in the public. We got up and started swinging. The same thing happened on Apollo 13, when we almost lost three guys in space. Again there was no mention of stopping.

In ’86 the country had changed somewhat, there were more questions about spaceflight and we had big time trouble with budgets by then. It took us longer to get the shuttle flying than we hoped, and there was a little more questioning about what we were doing, and why we were doing it from Congress and the public. But again, underlying that was this strong desire to keep going and push the frontier.

If the Challenger accident occurred today, I’m not sure our space program would survive. Our country has become very risk adverse. Not as willing to push the frontier of space or anything else for that matter. [ITALICS MINE — LENORE] It’s just a more risk-averse society. I’m not complaining, it’s just a fact. It’s just happened between litigation and everything else. It has become a different world. Today the Challenger accident probably would have been a showstopper. Now that the shuttle is coming to an end of course it’s not the same story because we’re trying to get to the end of this program.

To boldly not go...

26 Responses

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I for one am a sissy when it comes to flying into outerspace. That’s why we need to raise astronauts who will meet aliens and find new moon rocks. Hmmm, actually that does sound like fun.

  2. I think the reason of scuttling the shuttle has less to do with the risk of human death, and more to do with the fact that is really expensive to put humans in space, when they is no scientific value to it. Unmanned rockets are much cheaper and can do the same job. As fun and exciting it is to have astronauts, humans have zero scientific value in space.

  3. @ mark: that’s not entirely true. At some point, we will be travelling through space, and we need to know the affects of prolonged space travel would have affect on humans. How humans would function on a day to day basis in outerspace. Psychologically, physically, and emotionally. Yes, we need to be human guinipigs to pave the future of space travel for those that would follow after us. There is much scientific value in having humans in space. Anything that we need to learn and understand has scientific value.

    In application to FR, it’s about exploring the posibilites of the potential of our children. If we catered to our fears, and held back our children since the dawn of time, I don’t think we would have evolved as much as we did. We wouldn’t know of the oceans because we would never have learned to dive in them. We would have never left our native land to explore the world. And we certainly wouldn’t have gone into space, to learn what wonders and dangers that we know now are out there. Much like knowing the wonders and dangers of the world outside our homes. So that our children are well equipped to deal with those situations when they are on their own. And they will be, because we can’t always be around 24/7 for them, nor should we.

  4. mark’s suggestion about why there may not be as many manned missions makes sense (money, not worth it). Also, it may be that the fire of competition – courtesy of the USSR – is no longer under the US’s youknowwhat. Other factors may have a bearing on this particular issue, but I absolutely agree with the Griffin on risk aversion in every day life. Too bad he didn’t expand on the “litigation and everything else” assertion.

  5. ” If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. ”

    Gus Grissom after the Gemini 3 mission, March 1965

  6. Go back and listen to the broadcast of President Reagan addressing the country after the Challenger disaster. I’m pretty sure there was strong language in there about “If you want to do big things, you have to take big risks. Exploration is dangerous, but it’s worth the risk.” (That’s not a quote, just a paraphrase in my own words of what I remember hearing.) How we need to hear those words from our leaders today. Risk is not the enemy. Taking risks is a necessary component of progress. We don’t discover new things by sitting timidly in our homes.

  7. Risk adverse? Yeah, we’re risk adverse when it comes to exploring our world, raising our children, etc.

    However, we wallow in financial risk. Adjustable rate mortgages! Securitized suprime investment! Uncapped commodities speculation! Liquidation of municipal assets to Arab sovereign wealth funds! Endless bubble economies masking the reality of insolvency!

    It’s just gotten backwards. We no longer work to shore up infrastructure and economy for the future while pursuing new experiences. We are rather working to help the aristocrats destroy our infrastructure and economies while cowering in our protective media cocoons.

  8. How true. I remember the first time I visited the Museum of Westward Expansion in St. Louis (a *wonderful* museum BTW). It is at the base of the St. Louis arch. In information about building the arch, it said that they had *planned* for about 3 deaths to occur during the building. Planned for it; expected it. I think they didn’t have any deaths and that was remarkable at the time.

    While I’m not sure I’d like the idea of working on a project where they expected some of us to die doing it, it was a fact of life at that time – to progress, there was risk. We would not accept that today, partially because things are so much safer now. But safer does not mean risk-free and we need to accept that.

  9. Hi Lenore,

    Greetings from Houston! I am childless, but I read your website often. I agree with your ideals, but I have to admit, it makes me a little afraid to have children with the current societal view. That, however, is not the main reason I am writing, but rather to make a slight correction to this post – our SciGuy’s identity is ERIC Berger, not Ed. I read the whole interview, and cannot agree with Griffin’s assessment more.

    Sorry for the off-topic segue, but I’d like to tout Eric for a minute. For anyone who likes to keep up with tropical weather information, his blog is a good one to check during hurricane season. He’s straightforward and stays away from fear-mongering (I think he’d fit right in with this community! 🙂 Keep up the good work!


  10. But wait a second. We DID have another shuttle disaster. Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed on reentry in 2003, almost 20 years after Challenger. The response to the Columbia disaster was largely the same as it was after Challenger. In fact, the only difference, if any, was far greater apathy to the Columbia disaster.

    I’m a huge fan of this blog, but I have to say I don’t think this example is germane at all, and I disagree with Mr. Griffen’s assessment.

  11. Did you know that the metals used in building light weight wheelchairs came out of the space program?

    So did toothpaste (as apposed to tooth powder), and sqeeze tubes in general?

    I know lots of “BIG” things came out of the space program – like understanding the effect of minimal gravity on the human body – but lots of ‘little’ things came out of having humans in space too, and we don’t always – or ever – remember them.

    I agree that western society as a whole has become more risk adverse, and if you can tie two risks to something (in the case of the space program there are physical risks, but it is also very expensive with no guarantee of results) then people can’t calculate the risk as easily and will determine that it is “too risky”.

    As with parenting: The risk that your child gets hurt is risky because of the emotional risk, but also the financial risk of medical bills and/or court involvement, and the risk of societal condemnation.

    Hard to calculate risks are avoided more often than simple risks – even if they are no more “risky” over all.

  12. The morning Columbia failed to land, I was pretty sure that that would be the end of the Shuttle program. I was pleasantly surprised when Congress allowed NASA to continue to launch.

    When you go to the Air and Space Museum in DC and actually look at the actual Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules you get a much better appreciation for just how much risk people in the 60s were willing to accept to reach a lofty goal.

  13. Small-minded parents envision a life of hovering in noisy, annoying helicopters. Parents with ambition dream of sending their littl’uns into space. In big, fast (and sometimes scary) rocket ships.

    There’s your metaphor for the day.

  14. […] Read the rest here: The Challenger and Risk, 25 Years Later […]

  15. […] Read the original here: The Challenger and Risk, 25 Years Later […]

  16. Another change is that I remember watching that broadcast in 1st grade. We were all aware of the launch because of the teacher tie in. Weekly Reader was all over that story.

    Would they really let 1st graders experience something like that and be faced with the realities of death in school? Not only would they not want to expose them to death, but you cannot even read a Weekly Reader today. News and awareness of the world around you is not covered on the state test at the end of the year. What teacher would risk their job by “wasting time” on something like news?

  17. Brian, I was in kindergarten and I remember watching it as well. While I remember seeing the explosion I honestly don’t remember how the teachers addressed it. They must have done a good job though because I don’t recall being traumatized by the experience either.

    You’re right about how different things are today. I spent a few years as an assistant teacher working with kindergarteners and the amount of mollycoddling they did was ridiculous. We couldn’t read “The Cat and the Hat” without interrupting the story to mention how no real mother would leave their kids alone at home. One of my favorite moments was when one of the teachers was reading a picture book biography of Dr. Martin Luthur King Jr. and skipped the page where it mentioned that he was killed. I was dying to say something and was so pleased that the one bi-racial little boy in the class yelled out “He got shot” and the teacher had to address it.

  18. The funny thing about everyone becoming risk averse is the many people were not that way when it came to buying a house. How many people did no money down mortgages? Talk about risky.

  19. Another reason that the Challenger disaster slowed down the shuttle whereas the two Apollo accidents hadlittle effect was that the Challenger came after Watergate & in the midst of Iran-Contra when the public hadmuch less faith in the government not to lie to them.

  20. A month or so ago, my son started crying for no apparent reason. (He is 8) I asked him why he was crying, and he said it was because he heard on NPR news that the government was not going to fund manned space missions. He has plans for being an astronaut. It was a sad moment for me, and I had to try to rekindle hope that private industry will take up the slack, but I am not sure my son believed me. I am not sure if my son has “the right stuff” or not, but I don’t want to limit his goals either.

    Part of what really got him going was listening to Astronaut Story Musgrave who came and gave a talk locally about following your dreams. Mr. Musgrave is an amazing man, and very inspiring. At three his parents had him swinging on the straw bailer so he could reach his hands in during the couple seconds of safety and keep the strings straight. He was wandering around most days on his own, and spent the nights alone in the woods on his farm at a very young age. He grew up knowing that life is full of risks, and so was not afraid to go for his goals risk or not. He learned at a young age to learn to do many different things, something that helped him immensely in space, as well as on the ground. Very, very interesting man.

  21. The two shuttle accidents were extremely unfortunate, and it was painful to learn later that at least the first one was probably avoidable, perhaps both. However, it is remarkable that such an aggressive and jaw-droppingly complicated program suffered a failure rate of less than two percent. I’m sure that those astronauts were counting on the NASA folks to do their very best to ensure good flights, but I really doubt they’d have signed up for spaceflight with an expectation of a risk factor that low. In fact, I’d wager a guess that a lot of people would line up to fly into space even if they believed there chance of survival was far lower. We’re a risk-taking race, and it mystifies me why we are so appalled at someone dying in an attempt to explore space, but so ho-hum about so many other, more mundane ways to die. (Puffing your cigarette while speeding without a seatbelt, anyone?)

  22. Oops, “there” should have been “their”

  23. My dad was a career Navy pilot. I grew up with two de facto family mottoes – Illegitimati Non Carborundum Est and No Guts, No Glory.

    My nine year old has taken to yelling the latter when faced with a scary situation. He is getting pretty good at it.

  24. If the world explorers 500 years ago had claimed it was “too dangerous” to investigate the “New World” there would be no Canada, no USA, no Mexico…

    We will loose lives in space, but that is no reason to scrap space exploration. How many people are willing to sign up for the one way trip to Mars? I agree – No Guts No Glory!

  25. As someone commented earlier, the Space Shuttle was and is a “jaw-droppingly complicated program”. It runs on the outer edge of what is possible with late 20th-Century technology. I have a more than casual interest in the Shuttle; my brother had a major role in designing the hydraulic system that operates the landing gear. Whenever a Shuttle returns, and the TV shows the gear down and locked, I think, “Works right every time!” When the weather is bad in Florida, and they have to bring one down here in Southern California, we can sometimes hear the sonic booms of re-entry, our signal to turn on the TV and watch the landing. It’s an emotional experience for those of us who grew up when space travel was the stuff of science fiction and TV adventure shows. While we take a moment to remember those who didn’t make it back, let us then move forward. The Universe is calling!
    Live Long and Prosper!

  26. I was in the 5th Grade when the Challenger exploded. It was hard to avoid since schools made a big deal out of Christa McAuliffe’s presence as the first teacher in space, so many students seen the explosion as it happened.

    My brother made a really good poster about it, and it was used long after we left that school.

    I think it was handled very well. Death cannot be avoided, especially if it is a classmate that dies. In a school with a few hundred students, it seems inevitable.

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