Friday, January 28, 2011

The Challenger Explosion

25 years ago today, I was in 6th grade (I think). Everyone was excited because the Space Shuttle Challenger was set to launch and teacher Christa McAuliffe was on board. This was a big deal. I loved space. Most kids did. Or at least, they thought the Space Shuttle was pretty awesome. We gathered in the library to watch it, or at least some of us did. I was there anyway and pretty close to the TV.

And then it blew up.

That really did change everything. The space program never recovered. Americans never cared much about space again. When the Columbia exploded upon reentry into the atmosphere in 2003, Americans were sad, but relatively indifferent. We had stopped looking to space as the final frontier. It made for good TV, but it didn't make very much sense for us to be there and besides, the Moon is nothing but a ball of rock. The Hubble telescope is pretty cool because it makes pretty pictures, but there's not too much emphasis on humans exploring the universe anymore.

It also changed our relationships with technology. The space program, along I think with the Manhattan Project and subsequent Cold War nuclear technologies, made us believe in the government as the generator of technology that would save freedom, expand America, and make us all rich. It protected us from the Soviets and could expand our empire into space. I'm hardly suggested a monocausal transition here, but along with the Cold War's decline, the Challenger explosion helped move our faith in technology from the government and big centralized technologies to personalized devices that could make our lives more fun. Computers, VCRs, video games--these all meant more to my generation of Americans than seeing if we could put a man on Mars.

This then affected our national relationship with the military, where so much earlier technology had originated. Certainly after 9/11 but even in the first Gulf War, Americans viewed war through their experience with video games rather than an all-encompassing threat to American freedom. We could go kill people without threat to our own lives, just like playing at home.

Perhaps I'm overstating this change.

But I can say something that almost no respectable American would have said in 1986--the entire space program is a gigantic waste of money predicated on a small group of scientists and engineers believing so strongly in their own work that they ignore safety precautions or even the obvious likelihood of frequent explosions when you hurl gigantic manned vehicles into space. NASA still receives ridiculous amounts of money when it's primary mission in the 21st century should be facilitating consumer technology, predicting weather, and, perhaps, spying on our enemies. In any case, none of this ever needs to be manned. There is nothing out there we can use. We are stuck on this planet and with the resources of this planet. And we've had to start dealing with this reality for the first time in American history.