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.

 

Having fired the imagination of a generation, a ship like no other, it’s place in history secured, the Space Shuttle pulls into port for the last time, it’s voyage at an end.” — Rob Navias, NASA Announcer

STS-135 Mission Patch

As the lyrics to the 1998 Semisonic song “Closing Time” remind us: “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

On July 21, 2011 what was once a new beginning in human space flight ended at 5:57 a.m when Space Shuttle Atlantis  (OV-104) landed at Kennedy Space Center following the completion of Mission STS-135, signaling the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.

The mission, which began on Friday, July 8, 2011, delivered supplies to the International Space Station, lasted a total of 12 days, 18 hours, 28 minutes, 50 seconds.

On board was a crew of four: Commander Chris Ferguson,  Pilot Doug Hurley, Mission Specialist Rex Walheim, and Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus.

This was the final mission of the Space Shuttle Era which began on April 12, 1981 with the maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Columbia. Coincidentally this final shuttle mission coincided with another historical milestone:  the 42nd anniversary of the July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing.

With the wonder of a child, I watched with rapt attention as the final moments of this 30-year adventure unfolded live online via NASA’s live video feed.

I’ve always been enthralled with aviation — my grandfather, Papa, flew a C-47 in World War II and my Dad privately flew various aircraft, including a Cessna 310. But the Space Shuttle was especially significant.

The program began when I was in first grade and during my formative years served as an enduring symbol of education and exploration. The Shuttle captivated my imagination by symbolizing “intelligence in action.” It also exemplified achievement over seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

In the days before the Internet I watched on television as the Shuttle roared into the sky and then looked to the night sky as it streaked overhead like a shooting star. These were special times; moments that impressed upon me positive memories and feelings.

Space Shuttle Mission STS-135: Final Approach As Seen Through Atlantis Pilot's Heads-Up Display (HUD)

Years later, I shared a similar moment with my sons — Jacob (then 7) and Max (then 5) — when we watched “Hubble 3D” in IMAX at the California Science Center.

When the movie featured a Shuttle launch sequence my younger son, Max, turned to me with awe and fascination in his eyes. Later in the film, my older son, Jacob, stared excitedly at the screen and asked me how many stars there were in space!

I felt especially connected to the Space Shuttle when, in 1990, Leroy Chiao, Ph.D.,  who grew up in Danville, California as did I was selected as a NASA Astronaut.

NASA Astronaut Leroy Chiao, Ph.D.

He also earned a Master of Science and then a Doctor of Philosophy in chemical engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara — the school that would later become my undergraduate alma mater.

When Dr. Chiao was selected, I was the editor of my high school newspaper, The San Ramon Valley High School “Wolf Print.”

I was invited to meet Dr. Chiao with other high school newspaper editors at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he was working at the time.

He spoke about the Shuttle program and what he anticipated would be his role. Notably, Dr. Chiao flew as a mission specialist on STS-65 (1994), STS-72 (1996), and STS-92 (2000).

Dr. Chiao had logged more than 36 days, 12.5 hours in space, including more than 26 EVA hours in four space walks. He was also the Commander of Expedition 10 on the International Space Station (2004-2005). Dr. Chiao left NASA in December 2005.

In April 2003, I attended my first academic conference — the International Academy of Business Disciplines (IABD) — in Orlando, Florida.  I leveraged my proximity to the Kennedy Space Center and drove my rented Ford Mustang from Orlando to the historic spaceport.

Space Shuttle PatchWhen I arrived too late to take a tour of the facility, I explored what I could by myself. I also watched a 1985 IMAX movie I had seen years before at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum called “The Dream is Alive.”

I also bought some items for my sons, including an orange Astronaut jumpsuit both of my sons enthusiastically wore for a Halloween.

Although my visit was brief, being in that historic place was a powerful experience for me.

On November 30, 2008 I was captivated when Space Shuttle Endeavour was diverted to the backup landing option at Edwards Air Force Base  on its journey home from mission STS-126 due to inclement weather in Florida.

I was fortunate to have been able to record the double sonic booms as it passed over Santa Clarita and wrote a blog post featuring an MP3 file of the distinctive sound.

Despite the many incomparable moments of inspiration, however, there were also times of great heartache.

Despite these tragic times, the Space Shuttle will always be my generation’s inspiration — our Apollo program, our crowning achievement, our wildest dreams realized.

The image of that magnificent machine launching like a rocket, orbiting Earth, and then returning  as a powerless glider, will forever inspire and excite me.

It saddens me that the Shuttle was discontinued without a replacement ready to go. Now, for the first time in 50 years, the United States will have no launch vehicle.

Until a new one can be built, American astronauts will be ferried to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.  Commercial space vehicles will also begin operation in the near future.

NASA is planning to build a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for deep space exploration which is based on the Orion capsule, which was initially developed for cancelled moon-bound trips under the  Constellation program.

The chances of this coming to fruition in less than five years seems slim.

Space Shuttle Mission STS-135: Space Shuttle Atlantis Lands at Kennedy Space Center in the Early Morning of July 21, 2011

Until NASA initiates a new program, I will celebrate the fact that Space Shuttle Endeavour being on permanent display at the California Science Center.

I am thankful to NASA for 30 years of awe-inspiring adventure and exploration. And, lastly, I will forever remain inspired by the many Astronauts — from the Space Shuttle and prior vehicles — who  “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”