“Roger, go at throttle up.” — Commander Dick ScobeeSTS-51-L.

Today I showed a The New York Times documentary from June 2014 titled “Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster: Major Malfunction” in my MGT 205, Organizational Behavior class at the American University in the Emirates.

The documentary is about the Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia disasters; it explores how poor decision-making resulted in the death of the astronauts in both ill-fated flights.

Notably, the documentary is complimented by an article about the same subject matter from January 28, 2016 titled, “The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster, 30 Years Later.” I shared this article with my students to provide background information and to ensure their understanding of both tragedies.

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In addition to watching the documentary and discussing the article, I asked my students to get into small groups. I then gave them a worksheet with the following five questions to pair and share:

  1. What was the external image of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) before the Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986 – and how did that influence the internal culture at NASA?
  2. How did the need for NASA’s Space Shuttle program to be self-funded influence it’s organizational culture, managerial operations, and decision-making process – especially as it relates to their willingness to take risks?
  3. How did pressure to launch the Shuttle and “amorally calculating managers” result in the death of the 7 astronauts?
  4. What changes were made to the Shuttle program as a result of the Challenger disaster? Did any of the recommendations address changes that needed to be made within the culture at NASA?
  5. What were the similarities between the Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia disasters? Why did NASA’s engineering culture, leadership philosophy, and safety policies still cloud its decision-making and lead to the second disaster?

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After 30 years the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster still brings tears to my eyes; I was 11 (almost 12) when it happened and it affected me profoundly. It shattered my innocence.

The Columbia disaster was equally as emotional, though by that point, I had experienced many other trials and tribulations of adult life, so it was a less shocking. Knowing that many of the same organizational issues caused the loss of a second Shuttle and her crew made me equally as frustrated and sad.

As a child of the 1980’s, the Space Shuttle program was a pivotal part of my early life experiences; it defined my generation to a large degree. When Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011, it signaled the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.

Although a troubling topic — one of my students commented that it was “heavy” — challenging my students to think about something significant revealed many insightful observations. They were intrigued and engaged; I’ve never had a class as quiet as the one today.

Yesterday, as the world remembered the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on January 28, 1986, I reflected about the impact it — and the entire Space Shuttle program — had on my life. I also wondered to what degree it has influenced the direction my life has taken.

Certainly, the January 27, 1967 death of the Apollo 1 crew and the February 1, 2003 loss of Space Shuttle Columbia also impacted me, but the Challenger disaster has affected me more. I think it had a lot to do with my age at the time and the context in which the events unfolded.

STS-51-L-Patch.svgJust 73 seconds into its flight Challenger disintegrated, taking with it seven STS-51L crew members:  Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and, most poignantly for me, Christa McAuliffe.

That morning I was in the “early bird session” of my 6th grade class when a classmate burst in shouting about what happened. Since he was a bit of a troublemaker nobody believed him at first.

I still wish it was another one of his jokes.

Aside from it being my first “where were you when?” moment, I was going to give a speech about Christa McAuliffe. She had planned to present six recorded lessons (plus two live lessons from space) for elementary kids like me.  How cool was that, right? I felt like I was a part of this Space Shuttle mission; not just watching it.

Due to the circumstances, I was permitted to change my topic, and instead discussed the events that transpired; I think it was a means of coping to some degree. This was the days before YouTube and digital devices, so I remember recreating the “Challenger, go with throttle up” command.

Fortunately, the curriculum for those recorded and live lessons were reconstructed by NASA in 2007 for Barbara Morgan — McAuliffe’s backup.

Morgan was about to fly aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour (which launched into orbit for STS-118 on August 7, 2007), and wanted to perform some of McAuliffe’s lessons. Her role was different than McAuliffe’s however; she was trained as a full fledged member of the crew, with teaching as one small part of her role. According to an article on Biography.com:

Aboard Endeavour, she was load master, responsible for the 5,000 pounds of supplies that was transferred to the station. She also operated the shuttle and station robotic arms during three planned spacewalks. On the seventh day of the mission, she was scheduled to participate in an educational interactive video broadcast with students gathered at the Discovery Center of Idaho in Boise. Morgan planned to teach some of the same lessons that McAuliffe was supposed to teach more than 20 years previous, as part of a wider curriculum.

Video of Morgan aboard Endeavour with Scott Kelly —  who is currently the Commander of the International Space Station on a one year mission — follows:

Using archival footage, notes and whatever documents that could be found, NASA reassembled the lesson plans and made them available in a PDF document titled “Challenger’s Lost Lessons.”

Below is a  summary of McAuliffe’s planned recorded lessons; they are explained further in the article “Christa McAuliffe’s ‘Lost Challenger Lessons’: Photos.”

  • Hydroponics: demonstrate a closed environment in which you could grow plants in microgravity.
  • Magnetism: show how magnetism works in space using a compass, a bar magnet, and a container full of iron fillings. Watch a video of McAuliffe demonstrating this lesson prior to the launch.
  • Newton’s Law of Motion: explain Newton’s laws of motion, especially the 3rd law where an action causes an equal and opposite reaction.
  • Bubbles (Effervescence): demonstrate how microgravity affects bubbles.
  • Chromatography: put ink on a piece of paper, hang it up, add water, then watch the water dissolve the ink.
  • Simple Machines: answer the question: “What are the applications in space for simple machines like the wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, wedge, and pulley?”

The two planned live lessons were:

  • The Ultimate Field Trip: a tour of the Space Shuttle, asking students to think about living and learning aboard the Space Shuttle.
  • Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going, Why? This lesson was designed to: 1. explain some advantages and disadvantages of manufacturing in a microgravity environment; 2. describe spinoffs and other benefits which have evolved from the space program; 3. list ways in which the modular Space Station would change the lives of human beings.

Despite the tragic loss of Challenger, McAuliffe’s lessons lived on (in part) through Barbara Morgan’s historic trip on Endeavour. The innovation and determination both displayed inspired countless lives, including mine. While I don’t teach science, I was indirectly influenced to become an educator by McAuliffe and the Space Shuttle program.