At least, that seems to be how many people remember it, in whole or in part. That’s how the story of the Challenger is often retold, in oral tradition and broadcast news, in public speeches and in private conversations and all around the Internet. But spaceflight historians believe that each element of the opening paragraph is factually untrue or at best extremely dubious. They are myths, undeserving of popular belief and unworthy of being repeated at every anniversary of the disaster.
The flight, and the lost crew members, deserve proper recognition and authentic commemoration. Historians, reporters, and every citizen need to take the time this week to remember what really happened, and especially to make sure their memories are as close as humanly possible to what really did happen.
If that happens, here's the way the mission may be remembered:
- Few people actually saw the Challenger tragedy unfold live on television.
- The shuttle did not explode in the common definition of that word.
- The flight, and the astronauts’ lives, did not end at that point, 73 seconds after launch.
The capsule went hurtling towards the ocean at two hundred miles an hour at 200 G. They lost consciousness certainly, but they were still alive until the hit the water.
- The design of the booster, while possessing flaws subject to improvement, was neither especially dangerous if operated properly, nor the result of political interference.
- Replacement of the original asbestos-bearing putty in the booster seals was unrelated to the failure.
- There were pressures on the flight schedule, but none of any recognizable political origin.
- Claims that the disaster was the unavoidable price to be paid for pioneering a new frontier were self-serving rationalizations on the part of those responsible for incompetent engineering management — the disaster should have been avoidable.