The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. These are the day's main news headlines. Search vessels pulled small pieces of the shuttle Challenger from the Atlantic as the official investigation began into the cause of the disaster. As the U.S. mourned the seven dead, foreign leaders from Pope John Paul to Mikhail Gorbachev expressed their sorrow. Twenty-one Mexicans died in an airliner crash on the Gulf of California. President Reagan named Richard Ling as secretary of agriculture. Details of these stories in our news summary coming up. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: After the news summary our attention remains exclusively on the Challenger tragedy with reports from Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Elizabeth Brackett, and comments from The Right Stuff author Tom Wolfe, U.S. senator-astronauts Jake Garn and John Glenn, and Concord, New Hampshire psychologist Michael Vanaskie.News Summary
MacNEIL: As the nation mourned the loss of the seven Challenger crew members, small pieces of the destroyed spacecraft were pulled from the waters of the Atlantic. NASA said it was unlikely the bodies of the crew members would be found. Altogether, 600 pounds of fragments were recovered; the largest measured 12 feet by four. As the investigating team held its first meeting in what may be months of study, NASA refused to speculate on what might have caused the sudden explosion that destroyed the shuttle. NASA did say that the two solid-fuel booster rockets had been destroyed from the ground when it appeared one might be heading for a populated area. Correspondent Tom Bearden reports from Cape Canaveral.
TOM BEARDEN [voice-over]: The flag flies at half staff at the Kennedy Space Center and all across America tonight as the country tries to recover from the shock of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger.
[on camera] The search is being concentrated about 18 miles off shore. It's a huge area now being scoured by Coast Guard and Navy ships and aircraft. The Coast Guard reports it has already recovered a considerable amount of floating wreckage, and there are some reports that debris is beginning to wash ashore.
Lt. Cmdr. JIM SIMPSON, U.S. Coast Guard: They're searching a 5,500-square-mile area and they are continuing to pick up debris. They've found it spread over a wide area, but they haven't located anything really significant.
BEARDEN [voice-over]: Commander Simpson says it's impossible to predict how long the search will go on. Reporters from all over the world have descended on Cape Canaveral with a myriad of questions: what caused the explosion, about the wisdom of civilians aboard spacecraft, about the future of manned space flight itself. But as evidenced by their statements at news conferences since the disaster, NASA simply doesn't have any answers yet. The space agency has appointed an interim investigating committee and has impounded the thousands of electronic and paper records of the last flight of the Challenger for intensive review.
MacNEIL: The space agency appealed to citizens to turn in any fragments found washed ashore on the Florida beaches. Meanwhile, officials at NASA's mission control in Houston faced the press for the first time since yesterday's accident. At a news conference at the Johnson Space Center, one of the shuttle's flight directors was asked about the on-board computers and why they gave no warning of the impending disaster.
JAY GREENE, Mission Director, NASA: We train awful hard for these flights, and we train under every scenario that we could possibly imagine. There was nothing anybody could have done for this one. It just stopped. I don't know how that reflects on our computers or anything else on board.
REPORTER: Is what happened yesterday one of the things that you've trained for, and if so, how?
Mr. GREENE: No.
LEHRER: There will be a memorial service Friday at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for the seven Challenger victims. President and Mrs. Reagan will attend the service. Today Mr. Reagan said he was trying to escape the feeling of numbness and shock, but he said life has to go on as does the space program. He ordered flags at the White House and other government buildings lowered to half mast. A special photo of the Challenger seven was made a part of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington at a ceremony this afternoon.
Sen. JOHN GLENN, (D) Ohio: We are a questing people, whether it's in physical exploration into places unknown or whether it's in basic research in a laboratory or whatever. And out of that curiosity and out of that questing nature of ours we have forged the greatest land in history and leadership in this world beyond anything ever dreamed of. And that curiosity and that questing will never die. If it does, it seems to me we as a people die along with it.
MacNEIL: There were memorials and moments of silence observed in many parts of the country. The New York and other stock exchanges stopped business for a moment of remembrance. Some 20 radio stations in the Boston area observed a minute of silence. In Los Angeles the Olympic torch was relit in mourning while the bells of the National Cathedral in Washington tolled. At St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City the eight daily masses were packed with mourners. And in Concord, New Hampshire, where Christa McAuliffe taught, St. John's Catholic church held a special early morning service to let the children express their feelings. One way they did so was with singing.
At the Vatican, Pope John Paul offered a prayer for the souls of these courageous pioneers of progress, of science and of man. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was one of a host of world political leaders who expressed their sorrow to President Reagan. And Moscow Radio, without explanation, played the music of World War II bandleader Glenn Miller, apparently in tribute to the lost Americans.
LEHRER: In other news today, an airliner crashed into a Mexican hillside this morning, killing 21 people. The AeroCalifornia DC-3 went down near the airport at Las Mochas on the Pacific West Coast.
In Washington, President Reagan named Richard Ling to be secretary of agriculture, replacing John Block. Ling was California state agriculture director when Mr. Reagan was governor there. Mr. Reagan, in announcing the new appointment today, said the problems of farmers are severe but Ling is the man to handle them.
MacNEIL: A new preoccupation of the Reagan administration surfaced in Washington today as Angolan rebel leader Joseph Savimbi met Secretary of State George Shultz. Savimbi, who has waged a 10-year bush war against the Marxist Angolan government, is looking for military aid from the U.S. He said he was satisfied with his discussions, but the State Department did not comment. The administration has said it backs effective aid for Savimbi, but has not yet said whether that includes military aid.
In the Middle East, Israeli warplanes bombed what the Israelis said were Palestinian guerrilla bases in South Lebanon. One person was reported killed and four wounded. In Israel an infiltrator who crossed the border from Jordan was shot dead after killing two Israeli soldiers.
LEHRER: And finally, scientists have discovered in Canada the single largest find of rare fossils ever. More than 100,000 bones of animals some 200 million years old turned up on the shores of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. The discovery was announced by the National Geographic Society in Washington.
MacNEIL: And that's our news summary. Now we devote the rest of the hour to the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy, with reports from Charlayne Hunter-Gault in Concord, New Hampshire, and Elizabeth Brackett in Houston, and the thoughts of four Americans with different perspectives: former astronaut, Senator John Glenn; recent shuttle crew member Senator Jake Garn; Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff; and Michael Vanaskie, a child psychologist from Concord, New Hampshire. More Questions Than Answers
LEHRER: The important questions raised by the tragedy of the Challenger Seven are difficult and for the most part unanswerable. The most important one of all is the most elusive of all: what happened up there to cause that awful explosion? The search for the answer is underway, but where and when it will end nobody knows. NASA official Jesse Moore spoke to reporters at Cape Canaveral today about that search.
REPORTER: I have been told that Rockwell saw the pictures of the ice at pad 39-B yesterday and was concerned enough about those pictures to call NASA and ask for a delay in the launch. Did you receive such a call, and if so, why was it not acted on?
JESSE MOORE, Associate Administrator, NASA: There were a series of technical meetings yesterday morning about the ice on the launchpad. The ice team went out, did an inspection early in the morning, very early in the morning, and then came back and reported, and the technical team did sit down, all the NASA people involved as well as the contract people involved, and did feel that the conditions at the launchpad were acceptable for launch and basically recommended that, you know, we launch. In addition to that, there was a followup activity that was initiated yesterday prior to launch, very close to launch, and that is we sent an ice team out about 20 minutes before launch and basically checked again about the ice conditions, and all our reports back with that team were good.
BYRON BARNETT, WNEV-TV, Boston [voice-over]: If there is no black box, so to speak, and essentially you're looking at scraps, how confident are you that you will find the exact cause of what happened?
Mr. MOORE: Well, you always have to look downstream with some degree of risk that you're not going to precisely pin it down, but I think again that's speculation. Our objective is to precisely find out what happened, and that's going to be the emphasis of our team. But, you know, everybody has certainly a high degree of confidence we're going to be able to find it, and our effort is to focus in on the data and pin it down.
RICHARD SMITH, Director, Kennedy Space Center: Jesse, I'd like to add one point there. We know there is debris washing up on the beach. You people could be great assistance to us to inform the public that we need every piece of that, because we don't know where the clue might be. You know, we really could appreciate this. We do have a few souvenir hunters out there.
REPORTER: It's been said that the flight was nominal up until the point of the explosion. What conditions -- in your brainstorming, what conditions could have created the sequence of events that led to that explosion?
Mr. MOORE: I'm not prepared to speculate on that. You're asking me to try to pin down exactly the cause, and I can't speculate on that right now. I mean, you saw the films as I saw it yesterday, and that's all I'm prepared to say at this point in time.
REPORTER: Are you confident now that Challenger was consumed in that explosion, or is there a possibility that part of it survived? Is there any possibility at all that any of the crew will be recovered, or can we assume that they were consumed?
Mr. MOORE: Well, Jay, let me try to give you a very quick answer to this. I would always like to hold out hope; however, we have seen a lot of small debris, as you heard the report over here, and so, you know, I always hold out hope that there is going to be something there. But I think based on our debris reports and so forth, there is very little of that at this point in time. And until we're able to collect all the debris we possibly can, we can't absolutely 100 guarantee that, but that's the way the situation looks based on the information we've had as of now.
LEHRER: We go first to two very special members of the United States Senate, the only two who have traveled in space; John Glenn, Democrat from Ohio, did it as an astronaut, becoming in 1962 the first American to orbit the earth. Jake Garn, a Republican from Utah, did it as a senator, spending seven days in space aboard the shuttle Discovery last April.
Senator Glenn, do you have a theory, a possible theory as to what happened?
Sen. GLENN: Not at this point, and I think any theory that anyone would put forth would be so speculative that it wouldn't mean anything because they're still assembling the data. They're getting all the telemetry data, which means the radio signals that are sent down giving all the pressures and information. They have hundreds of channels of that that they have yet to analyze. They'll be picking up debris out there in this area of the ocean. Anything that anybody said right now would be pure speculation and I'd just rather not do that.
LEHRER: Senator Garn?
Sen. JAKE GARN: Well, John is correct. I mean, you can look at the pictures and you can easily conclude, as I've heard some people say, it's obviously the solid rocket boosters. Someone else looking at the same pictures said no, it was the external fuel tank; it's obviously the liquid hydrogen and oxygen. So you get a lot of different viewpoints. In my own office people looking at it all had a different view. And I've also found, with the limited experience I've had over my flying career with aviation accidents, is what may appear absolutely certain to you turns out with additional evidence to have been wrong, no matter how certain it looks. So John is absolutely correct. With all the questions that are being asked, pure speculation. NASA is doing the best they can. They're not trying to be evasive. They're telling everything they know at this time. But it's going to take some time to gather all this information, to put a team together of experts who can analyze all of the information that they have and come up with an answer. And we must. We simply can't fly again until we have an answer.
Sen. GLENN: If I could add just one thing.
Sen. GLENN: The same trio you just had on here right now from NASA, in that press conference, they briefed us last night. Jake and I were at the Cape with the Vice President last evening. We appreciated his inviting us to go along, to be there to meet the -- to talk to the families last night, which was very painful for everyone concerned, obviously, and to talk to the launch crew down there, and we were briefed on everything they knew last night. And NASA is not speculating; they're not holding things back. They're not speculating on it, nor should they at this point.
LEHRER: But you all are in a special category. I mean, it's one thing, as you say, for people in your office to see on television something; or for me or for anyone else in the country, but you all are part of the experts. Something must have gone through your mindnk blew up, that I think anybody watching it. But what the ignition source was, why it blew up, that's the question that's important to ask --
LEHRER: And there's no way of telling now.
Sen. GARN: No, there's no way of telling now.
Sen. GLENN: Riding on about 1.2 -- I think it's 1.2 million pounds of hydrogen and oxygen, and that probably comes as close to being a nuclear explosion as anything that's non-nuclear that you could think of.
Sen. GARN: You're riding more than four million pounds of fuel totally. So it's an incredible boost.
LEHRER: Sure. Is it possible that we will never know what happened?
Sen. GLENN: Well, I don't know. That would be difficult to speculate on now, too. Once they put all this together I'm sure that having seen NASA go through some of these drills before on where there was a booster failure of one kind or another way back, you do an extremely thorough job. You're usually able to pinpoint things down, to find a cause and correct that cause before you make additional flights. I suppose it's always possible that there could not be that kind of definition, but I certainly wouldn't anticipate that would be the case.
Sen. GARN: I think they will because I look back to the example of the satellite that we deployed and they didn't know what was wrong --
LEHRER: On your flight?
Sen. GARN: On our flight. And we tried to actuate the switch; it was already in the vertical position. The microswitches had obviously made contact. But on the ground, through reworking that problem and working with other satellites of that nature, and it was just as if it were gone. They couldn't look at it, it was up in space orbiting in low-earth orbit. And yet they were able to diagnose that problem and in August go up and fix it. And what they determined on the ground, even without being able to physically inspect it, turned out to be right, and they fixed it. And so I think that however long it takes, I really am very confident that NASA will be able to pinpoint the cause of this.
LEHRER: However long. It will be long, right, gentlemen?
Sen. GLENN: We don't know that.
LEHRER: Don't know that?
Sen. GLENN: No, not necessarily, but then I don't know what you mean by long.
LEHRER: Oh, let's say a year or two.
Sen. GLENN: Oh, I wouldn't say that it necessarily would be that long. They have a team working on this thing right now. I can't say that it's going to be weeks or as little as a month or something like that, but I also wouldn't want to say it might be a year yet, either.
LEHRER: All right.
Sen. GARN: Agreed. No way to tell.
LEHRER: No way to tell. All right, thank you. Robin? A Nation's Grief
MacNEIL: Some have begun to liken today's emotions to the collective grief the nation experienced after President Kennedy's assassination. How to assuage that grief, particularly among American schoolchildren, whose imaginations had been fired by this flight especially, is what we address now. We begin with a report from Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who spent last night and this morning in Concord, New Hampshire.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT [voice-over]: This is one face of Concord, New Hampshire: cold and frosty on a winter morning. But in these early hours following the Challenger tragedy, as the reality of it takes hold, a different side of Concord is beginning to show. It is the human side of a town that has lost one of its very special citizens. Here, as the shock begins wearing off, friends, neighbors and students of Christa McAuliffe begin reaching out for ways to comfort each other. The grieving as well as the healing process has begun. Early on, a radio station called JOY dropped its all-music format.
CALLER [on talk radio]: I miss McAuliffe really bad because she is one of the best teachers we had. And I was talking to some of my friends and they agreed with me. And the thing I want to let people know is what we want to do is we want to get a lot of kids from the high school together and make something or buy something, you know, to put in the Concord High School itself so everybody knows what Miss McAuliffe did.
HUNTER-GAULT [voice-over]: The radio station brought in a psychologist to help advise listeners on how to deal with their grief.
2nd CALLER: I'm calling in regards to my daughter. And she's been extremely upset, and when she came home from school she was almost hysterical not for the TV to be off or the radio to be off. She didn't want to see or hear it. And she's broke out crying four or five times. But I don't know what to tell an eight-year-old. I've had a really hard night with her tonight since she got home from school, and I was just wondering if you had any advice for me.
MICHAEL VANASKIE, child psychologist: I think, Beverly, that first of all it's really important that you know that the fears that your daughter is experiencing right now are a normal reaction that kids have to these kinds of disasters, that frequently the anxiety that's provoked from experiencing the disaster or the tragedy kind of uncorks other fears that they're having. And the best thing that you can do is to just allow her to talk about these things, give her as much reassurance and support that she needs.
HUNTER-GAULT [voice-over]: This morning Concord High School, where McAuliffe taught, was closed, but plans were going on there to help with the healing.
MARK BEAUVAIS, Superintendent of Schools: We are assigning psychological and counseling personnel and we are giving teachers -- we are having those people give teachers clues as to what are the signs that kids need counseling or need to talk to a counselor.
HUNTER-GAULT [voice-over]: And at St. John's Church, a very special kind of lesson, the positive kind that Christa McAuliffe might have taught.
PRIEST, St. John's Church: I'm going to ask you a question, okay? Did any of you ever have stuffed animals or maybe a special blanket or something that when you grew up to a certain age -- maybe it's something that you took to bed with you every single night, and finally your mother or father said to you, "It's time for you to get rid of that blanket or that animal." How many of you have had someone do that? Do you remember what you felt like that very first time that you didn't have to sleep with it? How did it feel? It felt bad. Did you feel something awful inside? Do you know that those are probably the same kinds of feelings that you're feeling over this tragedy that we had?
1st CHILD: When it came I was sad because, well, she was gone. But she's always been a special person. She always will be, even if we don't have her right with us now.
HUNTER-GAULT: Are you sad?
2nd CHILD: Yeah, kinda sad because, like, you know, when she came down we -- everything will be turning back to normal and now it's not going to be back to normal if she's not coming back.
MacNEIL: The psychologist who answered questions on that Concord radio station last night was Michael Vanaskie, on the staff of the River Bend Counseling Center, a private, non-profit community mental health center that works closely with schools in the Concord area. It was to him that teachers and counselors turned after the tragedy. Mr. Vanaskie joins us tonight from public station WGBH in Boston.
Mr Vanaskie, you've talked to dozens of children now since this disaster. Can you generalize about what they're feeling, what they're experiencing?
MICHAEL VANASKIE: Many of the children were able to watch the blast in their classrooms, and I think that's one of the things that makes this particular situation so unique is that we had many, many children sharing the tragedy of the death. I think --
MacNEIL: Does that make it easier or harder?
Dr. VANASKIE: I think it makes it a bit harder because many of them may not have had an interest in watching had it not been for the emphasis that was placed on this particular shuttle launch. What kids are feeling now runs the gamut from indifference to extreme feelings of sadness and grief. Much of that depends on how connected they were to Christa McAuliffe or to the shuttle launch through their work in school.
MacNEIL: American children today witness an awful lot of killing and dying on television. What is different in the quality of this in terms of its sort of penetration of their emotions, given, as you just said, it was almost required viewing for millions of children?
Dr. VANASKIE: I think one of the things that makes this different is that they're very aware that these were real people and that they suffered a real death. We make an effort always to help kids understand that television movies are make-believe and that those people are not really dying. And even news reports seem less real to them because they're people that they don't know. I think what happened in this situation is that through the efforts to personalize and humanize the space program, that Christa McAuliffe, especially, but all the astronauts became real people, and many children feel like they knew her personally.
MacNEIL: How are you advising parents and teachers to respond to children?
Dr. VANASKIE: Well, I think the first thing is that the parents or teachers have to get in touch with their own feelings, and if they are feeling sad themselves they have to be able to express those feelings to those around them who love them, support them. And then they need to be able to allow their children to express their feelings openly, not to minimize them in any way, not to say that they're silly for having those feelings, but to be a support to them. Some children are going to be very, very affected by this. Others, less so. But no matter whether they're very affected or less affected, it's important that parents take the time to hear and understand what their children are trying to express.
MacNEIL: Are there likely to be any lasting traumatic effects, a fear of space, a fear of flying, anxieties about technology?
Dr. VANASKIE: Among some children I'm sure that there is a possibility that that kind of effect will happen. Perhaps those children are the ones who won't have the opportunity to work through their feelings about what happened, to come to some understanding of it. Part of that understanding is being given accurate information and being able to ask questions, no matter how silly they may sound to adults.
MacNEIL: Let me widen this out now and bring in Tom Wolfe, the author of The Right Stuff, the book about the early space program. Beyond the children, how do you read the nation's grief today? Is it far-fetched to compare it with the aftermath of the John Kennedy assassination?
TOM WOLFE: No, I don't think it is. I think this, because it was on television, because it was a catastrophe in flight, exceeds the impact of the fire of Apollo I back in 1967. Whether it becomes the kind of event in which you remember precisely where you were when it occurred, as I think most people who lived at the time of John Kennedy's assassination or Robert Kennedy's assassination, I don't know.
MacNEIL: How is it touching people you know, the people you're close to?
Mr. WOLFE: I detected a shock immediately in the world that I live in, which is chiefly a world of journalism and literature. I immediately started getting phone calls. Everybody I knew was suddenly at a television set, and I remember calling an office and being told by an operator that so-and-so cannot come to the phone because he's watching television. And that was explanation enough yesterday. So I think that no matter who you were and how detached you want to be that it was not an event that you could be detached from.
MacNEIL: Senator Garn, your own personal grief was very evident in a portion of your statement that we ran on this program last night. How is this touching the emotions of people you know? Is is comparable to the Kennedy assassination?
Sen. GARN: I think it is, and particularly to those who knew the astronauts as I did. That's why I would have felt terribly sorry and grieved in any event. But to know them as personally as I did, and particularly Mike Smith, who was so good to me and my first astronaut trainer. And last night when John and I and the Vice President were with the families, I don't know that I've ever been in a more difficult situation or felt more inadequate to be able to speak to them and say something that would be helpful, because I could feel particularly what the young people were going through, with my own children about the same age of Mike Smith when their mother was killed in an automobile accident, my 10-year-old who had nightmares for months after that. My own little girl, when I flew, who is just 2 years old, not quite three, and seemed to be taking the flight fine, but when we got back she was being held by one of my staff and she put her hand over her heart and said, "Now my daddy's safe." And yesterday, when she saw this on the TV, she's just 3 years old now, and I left for work and she said, to my wife, she said, "My daddy can't go anyplace with me anymore. He's supposed to take me with him and not go alone." And so I think that it's having a much more greater impact than a lot of people think, and particularly on the young people. I think we need to give them a lot of love and a lot of attention and a lot of explanation of what has taken place to help them through this difficult time.
MacNEIL: Senator Glenn, you're the professional in this group. Is the nation -- you said yesterday we've been expecting something like this and hoping it would never happen. Is the nation overreacting? Did it have the wrong expectations?
Sen. GLENN: Well, perhaps we've grown accustomed to these things going off almost on an airline-like schedule or like a Greyhound bus leaving the station. And it's not that kind of a thing. It is a high-risk effort. We've known that. We perhaps have become complacent in our public attitude, not that NASA has been complacent in any way. And those who have been involved in the program knew the risks, but, you know, we're a people who are -- we're a curious people. We want to know not only what's down the road of the future, we want to help form that road. We want to build it. And we follow that up with our questing nature and we're willing to take risks. And it's always been that way, whether we were moving the colonists to the mountains or whether we were moving to the Mississippi River or the Rockies or the West Coast, and people got lost in this process once in awhile. And we hoped we were -- we had an amazing string of successes here, 56 manned flights and 24 shuttle flights that went off successfully. And so I think that the public thought we were sort of over the danger period, and yet it was always lurking there. And here we had tragedy to match the triumph after triumph after triumph after triumph that we had experienced. And so I think because we've gone so long without any other difficulties, why, it hit people and perhaps the children hard, and it hits the families hard, and ourhearts and our thoughts and our prayers go to those people who may be watching there in Houston tonight, back in their homes. We're glad they're back there. And our thoughts and our prayers are still with you, gang.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Jim? The Right Stuff
LEHRER: That brings us to the question of who are these people who fly off into space in the name of adventure, danger and the United States of America. Well, Dick Scobee, who died yesterday as commander of space shuttle Challenger, talked about that and other things in a 1984 interview with Kimberly Craft of public station KUAT-Tucson. There is an eerie irony to his description of how it feels to be blasted up toward space.
FRANCIS "DICK" SCOBEE, Challenger commander November 1984]: The thing that impressed me most was the ascent phase because of all the fire and brimstone that goes on during that part of the launch. And the first stage, when the solid-rocket motors are still attached, which is about the first two minutes of flight, is very eye-opening because the whole stack just shakes and vibrates and it's very metallic and clangy and bangy and everything, and it feels like being on a rough railroad track on a runaway freight train or something. You can still function and you can still see your instruments and things like that, but it's very, very eye-opening.
KIMBERLY CRAFT, KUAT-TV: What does it take actually in terms of character, intelligence, training, etc., to really become an astronaut?
Cmdr. SCOBEE: What I can say is that there are probably thousands of people in the world that can do the same job that I do, that are equally qualified, and I just probably happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right credentials. And there are a lot of people who have the same credentials I do, some of them even better, that aren't in the program. So I'm very fortunate to be where I am. But that's life and that's the way that the world operates.
LEHRER: Correspondent Elizabeth Brackett spent the day in and around the Johnson Space Center at Houston talking to astronaut family members and others about what it takes to take off into space.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT [voice-over]: It was as hard to watch the faces of family members go from elation to horror as it was to watch the shuttle Challenger disappear into a white cloud of smoke. How does a family cope with such stress? For the families of many astronauts, particularly former fighter pilots, the possibilities of such a catastrophic death was understood but seldom discussed. Lu Cunningham, wife of former astronaut Walter Cunningham.
LU CUNNINGHAM, former astronaut's wife: Living is a risk, and I think not the most risk you take the more you enjoy life, but I think unless you do take some at some point, you know, it improves or -- you get more from it.
BRACKETT [voice-over]: But Cunningham's husband was in only the third group of astronauts. She is not sure if the families of the astronauts today know the same kind of support she felt.
Ms. CUNNINGHAM: When we were there, yes, everybody knew each other; everybody knew where each other lived. I don't think that's the case now. I think there are so many and they live in different sections. A lot of the wives work. There is not the same camaraderie that we had when we were in the program, and in some respects I think that's going to be more difficult on them.
BRACKETT [voice-over]: The families of the shuttle mission astronauts arrived in Houston late last night, brought back home in two chartered NASA planes. Friends who waited to greet the planes comforted each other as the families were quickly driven to their homes in NASA vehicles. At the home of shuttle commander Francis Scobee, neighbors, friends, other astronauts gathered to help. Neighbors gathered next door to shuttle astronaut Ellison Onizuka's home as well. Charles and Suzanne Buckner had been invited by astronaut Onizuka to watch the launch at Cape Kennedy. They recalled Onizuka's wife Lorna telling them of NASA's disaster briefing.
CHARLES BUCKNER, friend of astronaut: She explained that the black book was a briefing that NASA held with the immediate family of the crew on where to go and what to do and what to expect if something happened. And Lorna says, "It's something we have to go through and we all joke about it. We have to joke about it."
BRACKETT [voice-over]: Though Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean says that when the worst does happen, even those in the business find it difficult to know what comfort to offer.
ALAN BEAN, former astronaut: You don't really know what to say. I mean, you can't offer any platitudes about how they died for their country or anything. Some do, but I don't think that holds much water, so you're helpless but at the same time you want the families to know that you feel for them and that you're available if there's just some way they could ask you to help you would help.
BRACKETT [voice-over]: Original astronaut Deke Slayton takes a tougher approach.
[interviewing] What would you say to the families of these astronauts? What is there to say?
DEKE SLAYTON, former astronaut: Nothing. Press on. Get on with the show. You can't fix it. Try to find out what happened and we'll fix it and go flying.
BRACKETT [voice-over]: It is the Deke Slayton attitude that author Thomas Wolfe called "the right stuff." Does that attitude help astronauts and their families cope?
Mr. BEAN: And I think the right stuff is the ability to pay attention to the gauges and instruments and not listen to the beating of your own heart. And if you can do that, you can be trained -- some people have it naturally. Deke and Chuck Yeager are examples, and there are many other examples in the space program --
BRACKETT: Did you?
Mr. BEAN: I had a difficult time. I tended to go back and forth. I would concentrate awhile and I would listen to my heart awhile, and then I would say quit doing that and concentrate on the gauges and do your job. But I would do that a little while and I would be -- I would say I was one of the more fearful astronauts.
BRACKETT: Do you subscribe to the theory that there is something called the right stuff?
Mr. SLAYTON: Well, I don't know what it is. I've never seen it defined. Everybody's going to die sooner or later and they all got to face up to it. So you know this is just another way, so why get excited about it?
LEHRER: To Tom Wolfe. How do you define the right stuff? In the simplest terms.
Mr. WOLFE: Well, it's a code of behavior and also in a way a set of almost superstitious beliefs that pilots, particularly fighter pilots, arrive at through training. And it's the kind of training and the kind of attitude that enables pilots to deal with some very fearful odds. The Navy did a study in the late '60s that showed that a Navy aviator flying for 20 years runs a 23 risk of dying in an accident. That didn't even include combat. He runs a 56 chance of having to eject and come down by parachute to save his life. Now, just try to translate those odds into any other sort of occupation. Perhaps policemen face something like that. But it obviously takes a very special training. And when the space program began, that was obviously needed. The backdrop of Alan Shepard's flight in the first week of May in 1961 was three exploding rockets. Two of them happened in late April. They were actually tests of the Mercury-Atlas system that would take Senator Glenn up into orbit later. But nevertheless the idea that these rockets could explode was very much on everybody's mind. You needed someone, a person -- in some way a person of steel to fly these early missions. I think that one of the real setbacks for NASA today as a result of what happened yesterday is that this flight of Challenger was to be the real crossover from the era of the right stuff in which people of steel would be required to go into space to an era in which the general public, whether we're talking about corporations or citizens such as Christa McAuliffe, would now be a part of a program whose safety had been demonstrated, and in so many ways it has been demonstrated. But I think this, what happened yesterday could psychologically throw us back to the period in which you needed the Alan Shepards and the John Glenns just to get the job done.
LEHRER: Senator Glenn, we've been talking about you.
Sen. GLENN: I heard that.
LEHRER: Yeah, yeah. How would you define, first of all, going back to what Alan Dean said and what Tom Wolfe just said about you early astronauts, what it takes to do this?
Sen. GLENN: All of us in those early days had been test pilots. We had been working through that time period with some of the newest of the supersonic aircraft, attack and fighter aircraft at that time. And you learn in that type of business, and we'd all come mainly from fighter backgrounds of one type or another, and you learn to put your -- of course you're afraid sometimes. But you learn to subjugate that to your job that should be done at that time.
LEHRER: But why? How were you able to subjugate those statistics that Tom Wolfe just gave, that your chances of this and your chances of that are really very, very high?
Sen. GLENN: Well,we never pored over the statistics that much, although there were a lot of people -- as Tom wrote in the first few chapters of the book, you know; back, Pete Conrad, some of the fellas. I was up at Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center about that same time. I think out of the 70 or so people that we had that were doing active test work -- there were more pilots assigned, but those doing active test work, as I recall, I think we lost 13 in the four years that I was there. Now, that's like combat losses, almost. But you felt it was important, the work you were doing. You were proud of the work you were doing for the country. There was some of that. There was a personal pride in comparing how you reacted to things with your peers.
LEHRER: Is there a thrill to the danger? I mean, were you aware, hey, this is dangerous and this is thrilling at the same time?
Sen. GLENN: Sure, there is some of that to it, but I would take exception to what you had when you started this segment of the program, where you said that men do this in the name of adventure. Adventure is part of it, not being the humdrum, not being the -- just going to the 8-to-5 job. So there is that aspect to it, but it's far deeper than that and you don't just do it for adventure. That'd be like playing Russian roulette. You do it for a higher purpose than that, and I think most people do. But as Deke said, you do it, it's your job, and you've built up, you've had the training and so you're in the right spot, the right place, and you're proud to do that kind of a job.
LEHRER: Tom Wolfe, you agree as a generalization with what John Glenn said?
Mr. WOLFE: Yeah, I think that becomes very much the essence of it, that the risk is taken -- judging from the astronauts I've talked to, the risk has to be taken for a higher cause, something that is believed in. And in the early days of the space program people unabashedly said this is done for reasons of patriotism. And that I think today in the military and, for that matter, in the corps of astronauts to this day I'm sure is the case. But, again, I think that NASA really wanted to reach a period, and this was to begin with this flight, really to begin wholesale with this flight, in which that stuff, however, whatever you want to call it, whether it's professionalism or something more complicated, was no longer going to be necessary. And I think that this could be a psychological catastrophe. Whether it will or not I don't know, but it could be.
LEHRER: Senator Garn, what do you think? You were also part of the -- if Tom Wolfe's theory is right, you were obviously part of the crossover, too, to send you and then Congressman Nelson into space.
Sen. GARN: Well, in a way, except that I was a Navy pilot and had 30 years of flying experience.
LEHRER: But you were not a professional astronaut.
Sen. GARN: Not a professional astronaut, but neither are a lot of the mission specialists. We have MDs, physicists, all sorts of people that were a step beyond the John Glenns of this world. But there's another factor here that makes these people tick, what made me tick. They love to fly. You love to be in the air. My father was a pilot in World War I, and I wanted to be a pilot more than anything else, and it's still the thing I've enjoyed more than anything in my whole life, more than the Senate, to be a military pilot. And there's a lot of people that are motivated that way. You'd be amazed --
LEHRER: Not by the risk? Not by the risk?
Sen. GARN: Well, the risk, you are trained to evaluate and weigh the accomplishment against the risk, and you do that. And there is a certain amount of thrill of taking the risk. But these people are still very special.
LEHRER: But let's talk about you. Let's talk about you. You told Robin that your 2 -year-old child was very much afraid for you as her father when you went up with this shuttle. Were you not afraid as her father, yourself?
Sen. GARN: No.
LEHRER: Not at all?
Sen. GARN: I was not afraid. You have some apprehension about 4.2 million pounds of fuel, but that's where you weigh the risk against your desire to go and the opportunity to accomplish something. But these people, whatever the right stuff is, and I don't know how to define it either, but we need to pay tribute to those current astronauts, too, not just the seven who died so tragically, but some people down there in Houston who are magnificent human beings who have sacrificed to do this for their country, and there is some duty, and what John was talking about in wanting to accomplish something at very low pay, at great sacrifice to their families. They are a special breed of people in this country. And there is some patriotism.
LEHRER: Let me ask Dr. Vanaskie a question in Boston. Before yesterday, did the young people in Concord, New Hampshire, see what Christa McAuliffe was doing as dangerous?
Dr. VANASKIE: I don't believe they completely understood the magnitude of the danger. Some of the comments earlier that in some ways we've become jaded to the regularity with which the shuttle flights were going up, that peopletended to take it for granted.
LEHRER: They didn't see her as taking a risk? She was doing something exciting, etc., right?
Dr. VANASKIE: Well, I think that some people understood; some children understood that there was a risk. She talked about that. She also talked about the fact that you don't -- you can't live life to its fullest without taking some calculated risks.
LEHRER: Okay. Well, thank you. Robin? What's Ahead?
MacNEIL: Let's talk about the future. With America's manned space effort now grounded indefinitely until the cause of the disaster is found, some voices are already suggesting it should be stopped in favor of unmanned missions. We look to the future now. We start with the comments of shuttle commander Scobee, who talked about the value and future of space exploration in that 1984 interview with Kimberly Craft of Tucson public station KUAT.
Cmdr. SCOBEE: The earth isn't really overpopulated, it's mismanaged as an entity. And it just looks that way from orbit because you don't see all the people and you don't see the congregation of the people in cities. You can see cities, but you don't relate to all the mass of humanity that's involved in that so you're kind of omipotent, if you will, in your view of the earth. But it's obvious that, you know, some places in the earth -- on the earth, like Africa, are suffering from severe droughts, and we can watch the shrinking -- each of our flights goes up and you can watch the shrinking of the water resources in that area and you can watch irrigation of areas, so you can watch the earth grow and evolve from orbit, which is one of the luxuries we haven't had from being earthbound and so we do gain a lot of knowledge from each of our space flights as we go up and we can progressively watch different parts of the earth change.
Ms. CRAFT: Where do astronauts see themselves going in the future? To other planets, or is it just more of just exploratory missions, or do you see yourselves going to Mars or something like that?
Cmdr. SCOBEE: I don't see me going to Mars, but the shuttle program when it was put together was really a three-tiered program. The shuttle was the truck; space station was the place that we originally would go to and then we'd colonize the planets. Well, at the time the cost of that was not palatable to neither the public nor Congress, and so they backed off on the program and they built the shuttle, and it was a very austere program when it first came out and we suffered from that a little bit during our development phase, and that's why some of the program was late. And so we did get the shuttle. We've proved it successful; we're flying it. So that's our truck, and it's taking the place of a space station right now, but we're in the process of developing a space station, and I think once you see the space station develop and fly, which is in the 1990-to-1992 timeframe, then the next thing is, okay, now we're going to have to go colonize somewhere. And I say "have to" because I think it's man's natural propensity to go explore. And you can send all the machines you want out preparatory to that, but I think you're still obligated to send the people to follow them up, and that's what's going to happen to us. We're sending machines already and we're going to send people to follow them. I know there's a lot of -- there's manned space flight people and there's non-manned space flight people and I just happen to be one of the manned people, and I have very hard feelings about that. I think that's the way we ought to be doing things.
MacNEIL: To pick up on Commander Scobee's phrase "the cost palatable," I'd like to hear each of you, say, starting with you, Tom Wolfe, how is yesterday's tragedy going to change the public's and therefore the taxpaying public's attitude to the whole future of the space program? Is the cost going to remain palatable?
Mr. WOLFE: Well, those are very prescient, fateful words of Commander Scobee. He put his finger right on the problem that NASA is going to be facing from this moment forward. In the latter days of Apollo there was what was known at NASA as budgetless financing. Whatever NASA wanted to get to the moon ahead of the Soviet Union, it got. Then the nation became exhausted, the public and the Congress became exhausted with the expense and just the momentum of the space program and said we can't -- it was like what happened to Columbus after his four voyages to America. The people were tired of it. So NASA had to make a big choice in the early '70s and headed towards the kind of truck that Commander Scobee talks about, a practical vehicle that would involve the public, it would involve the corporations with launching satellites and eventually would involve the general public, starting with Christa McAuliffe. Now suddenly I think the program -- and again, psychologically, and I don't know how you deal with that -- is thrust back to an earlier threshold in which it's now looked upon again -- and perhaps it should be -- as a pioneering effort, something that's in its infancy. And now can NASA -- it makes it more dificult for NASA to say, well, we're going to press on ahead with a program that's going to involve the general public.
MacNEIL: Mr. Vanaskie, in Boston, let's go to you as the other private citizen here before we go to the public officials. Just in your own private opinion, do you think the cost is going to be palatable to continue the space program as it's presently outlined?
Dr. VANASKIE: I would hope so. I think that, in my own opinion, I think it is palatable because young people need to know that there is a frontier that they can press forward toward. That was what the whole thing with Christa represented, that she was taking us on out into space. And if her death is going to mean anything it has to mean that we won't give up that kind of effort.
MacNEIL: How about the Congress, Senator Garn? Is the cost going to be palatable to the Congress?
Sen. GARN: Yes, I think it will be, and I think we need to let the American people know what the cost is. I've been rather intimately involved with NASA's budget for a long period of time. We spend less than one half of 1 of the total national budget on the space shuttle program. Rather a feeble effort, considering what we learn from it. Bo Bobko, my commander on my flight, at one of our first press conferences, asked the question, what planet will we explore first, and he immediately shot back with some surprise like, why wouldn't you know? And he said, the earth, of course. And we are. We are learning so much about our own planet, so much information coming back, so many products, so many technologies that we take for granted from a pacemaker in somebody's chest to more than 12,000 medical devices or procedures. We're going to discover a cure in medication from a major disease from zero-gravity production. We had the electrophoresis on my flight. It is absolutely unlimitless --
MacNEIL: Let me ask Senator --
Sen. GARN: -- what we're going to do for the people of this earth from space, and we must not falter and to stick with that little less than one half of 1 whlen we spend more than double that on food stamps, as an example. We must press on, and I think Congress will. There are some naysayers, but I think the overwhelming majority of Congress will think we need to go forward with this program.
MacNEIL: Senator Glenn, how will yesterday's disaster, tragedy, setback change the terms of the debate about the future of space in Congress?
Sen. GLENN: I don't think it'll change it nearly as much as maybe some of the speculation is today. Let's put it in the proper perspective. I would disagree a little bit with Tom that this was to be the absolutely definitive breakpoint that he made it out to be. I just don't think it was like that. We gradually built up a confidence, we had a long string of successes. We've had a setback now. This doesn't change things to the point where you say we now go unmanned because we have lost some people, any more than we changed the whole program to that extent back when Gus Grissom, Roger Chafee, Ed White were lost back in '67. It was a temporary setback. We went to work, we determined what was wrong, as Deke said, and then we went up. You fly again, and that's that. And if the program was worth it, which I very firmly believe it is, for all of the reasons of looking out into space for energy sources or whatever, on-board manufacturing, earth resources analysis, all of these things can be done from the vantage point of space better by people than they can by the unmanned probes that wherever we go we'll always send out ahead of us. And so, is it palatable? Yes, because it's worthwhile for the country and for all of our people here and for the whole world. I mean, you put it on that kind of a basis, yes, this is a setback, and we lost seven people, and let's face it, that's tough. It's tough for those families there tonight. But it doesn't mean that the whole program will be set back. And as they said to us yesterday, don't let this change the program. Don't let it set it back. Their attitude is the one that I think the rest of the country will have and that I think the Congress will have.
MacNEIL: Do you agree with that, Tom Wolfe?
Mr. WOLFE: I think that what might actually happen would be that both the public and the Congress might once again be more open to the idea of what was originally planned by NASA in the late '60s, which was manned explorations of Mars, let's say, which would be a two-year flight. And which my feelings is really more in keeping with the ultimate purposes of a space program, which is the opening up of the rest of the universe.
MacNEIL: John Glenn?
Sen. GLENN: Just very briefly, I'd be interested in hearing Dr. Vanaskie's comment. I saw or heard on TV or radio today about polls taken over the 18-month period after the pad fire where the three people lost their lives I just mentioned, and it showed a big increase in support for the program as sort of -- I don't know for why, but it was -- there was sort of a surge of interest in the program after that that resulted in polling showing people more for the program instead of wanting to terminate it.
MacNEIL: Let's ask him. Dr. Vanaskie, do you have a comment?
Dr. VANASKIE: I think that one of the things that might happen is that people would not want to see this be the end, that we don't want to end with failure. We want to go on and make things better, that instead of saying, well, we've lost some people so let's stop, I think a lot of people are going to say, we made a mistake here, let's see if we can make it better in the future.
Sen. GLENN: Make that loss of lives worthwhile.
Mr. VANASKIE: Right.
MacNEIL: Senator Garn, what about Tom Wolfe's point that this might redirect people to look for an even bigger goal, like going to Mars?
Sen. GARN: Oh, I think you have to understand what an important cog the space station is in going to Mars, to be able to go to some of the outer planets. And that is the next step in that process, and that's where NASA would like to go. And I agree. The space station should not be slowed down. I hope the budget constraints do not do that. I hope he initial operation capability is by 1992, and then I would like to see us press on to explore Mars.
MacNEIL: And should the idea of citizen astronautss be rethought?
Sen. GARN: I don't think so. I don't think so. Christa McAuliffe was capable of being an astronaut. She did such a good job in training. NASA was so pleased with her. She could have qualified and been a fulltime astronaut. And I see no reason why that program should not continue.
MacNEIL: Well, gentlemen, we have to thank you all for joining us tonight. Tom Wolfe in New York, Mr. Vanaskie in Boston, Senators Glenn and Garn in Washington. Jim?
LEHRER: We end our coverage of the Challenger tragedy aftermath with the view of cartoonist Ranon Lurie.
[Lurie cartoon -- American flag flies at half-mast on moon while taps are played.]
MacNEIL: Once again the main stories of this day. Search vessels recovered debris from the shuttle Challenger and the official investigation began. Foreign leaders including Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev expressed sympathy. Twenty-one Mexicans died in an air crash on the Gulf of California. President Reagan nominated Richard Ling to be secretary of agriculture. Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin. We'll see you tomorrow night. I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour
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- This episode's headline: News Summary; More Questions Than Answers; A Nation's Grief; The Right Stuff; What's Ahead?. The guests include In New York: ROBERT MacNEIL, Executive Editor; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor; >TO> Reports from NewsHour Correspondents: TOM BEARDEN, in Cape Canaveral; CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, in Concord, New Hampshire; KIMBERLY CRAFT (KUAT), in Tucson; ELIZABETH BRACKETT, in Houston. Byline: In New York: ROBERT MacNEIL, Executive Editor; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor; >TO> Reports from NewsHour Correspondents: TOM BEARDEN, in Cape Canaveral; CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, in Concord, New Hampshire; KIMBERLY CRAFT (KUAT), in Tucson; ELIZABETH BRACKETT, in Houston
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- APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Boston, MA: NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_507-3775t3gk14