Magazine article The Spectator

Television Lost in Space

Magazine article The Spectator

Television Lost in Space

Article excerpt

On 28 January 1986 the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after launch, killing all seven crew. What made it worse was that one of the victims, Christa McAuliffe, was a teacher, so of course all the children in her class were watching it live on TV. I remember it well. For the first few seconds after the shuttle blew up, you weren't quite sure whether or not what you'd just seen was meant to happen: perhaps all those swirls of white vapour were jettisoned boosters or something. Then, you heard the gasps and groans from the crowds standing at the launch site and finally you knew. Up until 9/11 I think it was the most shocking event most of us had ever witnessed on TV.

What I hadn't been properly aware of, till The Challenger (BBC2, Monday), was the back story. The disaster, it turns out, could easily have been avoided if Nasa had followed the advice of its own engineers.

One of the parts on the shuttle - a rubber seal for an O-ring - was vulnerable to cold weather. And on that particular day, the shuttle was launched at a temperature well below the recommended minimum.

But this was more than a routine health and safety oversight. Really, it was manslaughter. Nasa recklessly launched that shuttle because it needed the money. It wanted to demonstrate to the US Treasury that, despite having ostensibly fulfilled its purpose once the moon landings were over, it had a vital new role to play in providing space shuttles as a delivery system for spy and telecommunications satellites.

Nasa was under pressure to prove itself. It had successfully lobbied to have a rival delivery system - a rocket programme being developed by the US Air Force - scrapped.

What it now needed to show was that it had the capability to launch space shuttles with clockwork regularity in all conditions. That's where poor Christa McAuliffe came in. Like the senators who'd gone up on previous missions, her job was to create human interest and to plant in the public's (i. e. , the taxpayer's) head the idea that Nasa and its space shuttles were worthwhile causes.

As you may imagine, this scheming was not something Nasa was particularly keen to have come out in the public inquiry into the disaster - the Rogers Commission - ordered by Ronald Reagan. There is the suggestion that the inquiry had been designed to be a whitewash. If so, it made a huge mistake in recruiting to its panel Dr Richard Feynman - bongo-player, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, fearless and inexhaustibly curious seeker-after-truth. …

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