The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour
MISSION CONTROL [voice-over]: Engines throttling up. Three engines now at 104 . Challenger, go with throttle up.
MIKE SMITH, pilot [voice-over]: Roger, go with throttle up.
MISSION CONTROL [voice-over]: One minute, 15 seconds; velocity 2900 feet per second, altitude nine nautical miles, downrange distance, seven nautical miles.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. At 11:39 a.m. Eastern Time, disaster struck America's manned space program. A minute after launch the space shuttle Challenger blew up, killing all seven crew members, including the schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe. For her family, her students and millions of Americans watching on television, a moment of joy turned suddenly to horror. The suddenness and violence of the blast meant no escape for the crew as fragments of the spacecraft plunged into the Atlantic. A stunned and saddened President Reagan canceled his State of the Union message tonight.
JIM LEHRER: All of the NewsHour tonight will be devoted to the space shuttle tragedy. We have a reaction to and discussion of what happened and why, plus videotape reports from the central locations involved, including Concord, New Hampshire, home of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. The Shuttle Challenger
LEHRER: Seven Americans died aboard space shuttle Challenger this morning. The seven were Francis R. "Dick" Scobee, the spacecraft commander; Michael J. Smith, the pilot; Mission Specialists Judith Resnick, Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka; Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis; and Christa McAuliffe, a Concord, New Hampshire, schoolteacher, the first participant in NASA's citizen-in-space program. Robin?
MacNEIL: This mission, like other recent shuttle launches, had been delayed by weather and mechanical problems, but they only added to the suspense and the unusual attention this flight attracted as the first to carry a private citizen into space. And when the delays ended everything pointed to a perfect launch.
[voice-over] After five postponements the astronauts were well-rehearsed in the routine of early-morning preparations. They were planning to release a satellite to study Halley's Comet and then retrieve it. Mrs. McAuliffe planned to teach two brief lessons for schools on the Public Broadcasting service. The mission also called for launching a communications satellite. It was to be the first launch from a new pad at Cape Canaveral. At the last moment another hitch developed this morning. In the bitterly cold weather icicles formed on the launchpad and there was concern that they might harm the spacecraft. It took two hours to clear them away and get ready for a launch. At first it looked good.
MISSION CONTROL [voice-over]: T-minus 15 seconds.
Pilot SMITH: T-minus 10 seconds. -- open main engine start.
MISSION CONTROL [voice-over]: T-minus 10, eight, seven, six -- we have main engine start -- four, three, two, one, and liftoff! Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.
Pilot SMITH [voice-over]: Roger, roll.
MISSION CONTROL [voice-over]: Good roll program confirmed. Challenger now heading downrange. Engines beginning throttling down now at 94 . Normal throttle for most of the flight, 104 . We'll throttle down to 65 shortly. Engines at 65 , three engines running normally, three good fuel cells, three good APUs. Velocity, 2257 feet per second; altitude 4.3 nautical miles; downrange distance, three nautical miles. Engines throttling up, three engines now at 104 . Challenger, go with throttle up.
Pilot SMITH [voice-over]: Roger, go to throttle up.
MISSION CONTROL [voice-over]: One minute, 15 seconds; velocity 2,900 feet per second; altitude nine nautical miles; downrange distance, seven nautical miles. Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction. We have no downlink. We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. Flight director confirms that. We are looking at -- checking with the recovery forces to see what can be done at this point.
MacNEIL: At first many at the launch site were not fully aware of what had happened. Among those watching were Mrs. McAuliffe's husband Steve and their two children, Scott, nine, and Carolyn, six, Members of Scott's third-grade class from Concord, New Hampshire, and her parents, Ed and Grace Corrigan of Framingham, Massachusetts. Here is how the Corrigans and others reacted. [videotape of spectators, including family]
SPECTATOR: It's not up there!
2nd SPECTATOR: It's not in the sky!
MacNEIL: Instantly, NASA's often-rehearsed rescue procedures went into action. Paramedics parachuted into the Atlantic, but because flaming debris continued to fall from the sky it was 45 minutes before Coast Guard ships and rescue helicopters could move in to search the impact area closely. There was almost no hope that the crew could have survived such a cataclysmic explosion, but it was not until 4:30 p.m. that NASA announced officially there was no evidence of survivors. It was 19 years ago yesterday that the only other fatalities in the U.S. space program happened. Three Apollo astronauts died in an explosion on the launchpad.
LEHRER: The 1,200 students at Concord, New Hampshire High School were assembled together to watch this morning's launch. They had a special interest, a 37-year-old English teacher named Christa McAuliffe. We have a report from Concord by Maryanne Kane.
MARY ANNE KANE [voice-over]: There was an air of jubilation, of party hats and party horns at Concord High School this morning as hundreds of Christa McAuliffe's colleagues, friends and students gathered around television monitors in the school auditorium to watch the 11:39 blastoff. It was going to be a great party, a great sendoff. History was being made. They even joined in cheering the countdown.
STUDENTS: Four, three, two, one, and liftoff! [cheering]
KANE [voice-over]: They were so happy, so proud and excited for the 37-year-old social studies teacher. In a sense she carried with her many of their own hopes for adventure, for challenge, for self-realization. But all of that suddenly and tragically shattered when the shuttle Challenger exploded within moments of takeoff. They witnessed it on the monitors. Suddenly there was silence, only the low tones of the television monitors witness to the tragic event.
MISSION CONTROL [over television]: We have a report that the vehicle has exploded. Flight director confirms that. We are looking at -- checking with the recovery forces to see what can be done at this point.
KANE [voice-over]: The students sat in stunned disbelief, some simply staring, others trying to comfort each other. Then they left and the press was ushered out.
LEHRER: Today's tragedy caused the cancellation of tonight's State of the Union address. President Reagan and congressional leaders agreed to postpone it a week, until next Tuesday night. President Reagan was in the Oval Office preparing to brief a group of television anchors and correspondents on the State of the Union when he was informed of the tragedy. He did eventually join the group in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. He spoke then of the horror he felt when he viewed a television replay of the explosion and of his deep sympathy and grief for the families of the seven victims. He said his mind was fixed on remembering his meeting Christa McAuliffe, her husband and two children right in that same White House room several weeks ago. He dispatched Vice President Bush to Cape Canaveral to express his concern to the families, and later in the afternoon, from the Oval Office President Reagan spoke briefly about the tragedy on national television.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnick, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together. The families of the seven, we cannot bear as you do the full impact of this tragedy, but we feel the loss and we're thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, give me a challenge and I'll meet it with joy. They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us. We've grown used to wonders in this century. It's hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We've grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew,were pioneers.
MacNEIL: On Capitol Hill the stunned House of Representatives observed a minute of silence. The chaplain of the Senate said, "Our hearts are smitten and we are reduced to silence." Both houses recessed in respect until tomorrow. Three members of Congress reacted with particularly personal knowledge. Senator Jake Garn and Congressman Bill Nelson had just flown on shuttle missions, and Senator John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth.
Sen. JOHN GLENN, (D) Ohio: You say this is a day we've managed to avoid for a quarter of a century. You say we've talked about it before and speculated on, and it finally has arrived. We hoped we could push this day back forever. But the people that were on the flight today carried our hopes and dreams along with them, and they'll live forever in our memories. And I guess that's the best tribute we can give to them. I think everyone that's ever had any connection with the program has felt that some day there would be a loss in flight. We're dealing with tremendous powers and speeds. You're traveling in orbit at five miles a second and trying to get back into the atmosphere from that kind of speed. And so, are we going to be perfect forever? I guess the answer was proven this morning that the answer to that is no. But that doesn't mean that man doesn't keep trying in these areas and that we're not just as dedicated to seeing that this kind of research goes on.
Sen. JAKE GARN, (R), Utah: And I don't know of any time that I have been more shocked or more moved than when my first wife was killed in an automobile accident, and so it's been very, very difficult for me this morning.
REPORTER: What does this do to the space program, to yours and its support on the Hill, Senator?
Sen. GARN: Well, I have great confidence in the space program. I think it's a remarkable system, and I think we should push ahead after we have determined the cause. Obviously we should not fly until we have determined the cause of this particular failure. But I think we need to look at all of the successes, the remarkable safety record that the space program has had, the benefits that come from it. And the crew members that I knew so well, I would expect that they would want us to go ahead with the space program after we have gone through the proper investigations and analysis and know what happened.
Rep. WILLIAM NELSON, (D) Florida: This system is not without risk, and everyone who climbs on one of those loaded spaceships understands that risk. The people who designed the system understand that risk. And as a result -- it's unfortunate that this great tragedy has occurred, but that is not going to stop the space program, nor should it, nor would the seven crew members who perished today would ever have wanted that to be contemplated.
LEHRER: What caused this spacecraft to explode this morning is the crucial question, of course. Late this afternoon NASA official Jesse Moore said there were no answers yet. He said the agency had just begun its investigation. He talked to reporters at a news conference at Cape Canaveral.
REPORTER: With all the delays that you experienced last week and the delay again this week, was there any pressure building at all to try to get this one off the ground? Was the pressure up there, and who made the final decision to go or no go?
JESSE MOORE, Associate Administrator, NASA: There was absolutely no pressure to get this particular launch up. We have always maintained that flight safety is our top priority, consideration in the program, and we looked at the status and readiness of the systems based on that. We thoroughly reviewed the activities over the weekend and yesterday, and continually reviewed the status of Challenger right up until launch this morning. All of the people involved in this program, to my knowledge, felt that Challenger was quite ready to go, and I made the decision, along with the recommendation from the team supporting me, that we launch.
REPORTER: We received a call today from a member of an academic group who said he was on a tour group that was at the pad 39-B on Saturday night. This group was supposed to get off the bus to take a close look at the shuttle but was not allowed to because, this caller says, they were told that a derrick arm had struck one of the tanks on the shuttle and that some repair work was being done. Are you aware of this incident, and are you aware of any problems at all with any of either the external tank or the two solid rocket boosters?
Mr. MOORE: No. We looked at that on Saturday. It was not even in the same area of the tank. It was a small box, a heater box, that had about a quarter of an inch of the insulation out of five inches that was scraped. It was a very minor scrape. It was repaired and everybody, all the experts in the program, took a look at that and so we closed it off at that point in time.
REPORTER: Has this raised any questions about how reliable the space shuttle is? Might there just be too many things that could go wrong with a vessel this complicated?
Mr. MOORE: Well, that question I'm sure will be asked and I don't want to speculate on that at this point in time. That's certainly a logical question for somebody to ask.
LEHRER: Moore said all space shuttle operations have been suspended until, in his words, "We get a handle on what happened today."
MacNEIL: To look further at the shuttle explosion we have Jerry Grey, publisher of Aerospace America, a trade journal, and a long-time follower of the space program, and David Scott, a former astronaut, who was commander of the Apollo 15 mission. He now heads his own research and development company, specializing in the kind of rocket boosters used on the space shuttle.
Let me ask each of you first, do you have any guess as to what could have caused this explosion today, Jerry Grey?
JERRY GREY: Well, we can all make a lot of guesses. From the appearance of the initial flame that went just before the explosion, there were probably only three possibilities that look at all real. One is that there could have been a rupture in one of the solid propellant rocker motor casings. A small flame does appear at the exit, what looks like the exit of the motor. I don't think this is too likely. Those cases are quite strong. The area in the nozzle that might have failed --
MacNEIL: Solid propellant rockets are the two white ones, long, cigar-shaped ones on either side.
Mr. GREY: The weakest spot in those rockets is at the nozzle juncture and the flame seems to be upstream of that; that is, in the main rocket casing.
MacNEIL: Let us look in slow motion at the moments before the explosion and have you stop it where you see what you think is the little flame. There it is --
Mr. GREY: There. See that little -- stop now.
MacNEIL: Stop it there. You mean --
Mr. GREY: The little flame between the big rocket at the top that's flaring and the orbiter with the tail. See, there's a little, tiny orange streak down there.
MacNEIL: Yeah. And that is not meant to be there?
Mr. GREY: No. That is definitely not meant to be there. In fact, if you watch it, it pulses back and forth for a period of about a second.
MacNEIL: Let's advance the tape now. You can see it pulsing.
Mr. GREY: Now stop again.
Mr. GREY: Now, it's not likely that that is a rupture in the solid propellant casing. The other possibility is that somehow a fracture could have occurred in the propellant tank which is right behind that.
MacNEIL: The solid propellant casing is the one that is burning there, and you see it on top of our picture.
Mr. GREY: Below that, sort of the dull orange background, is the tank itself. It contains a lot of hydrogen and oxygen. It's possible that a rupture occurred in that tank, and that is a hydrogen flame. That's -- the hydrogen part of the tank is down there. We're still in the atmosphere so that possibly hydrogen streaming out of that tank could have been ignited by the solid propellant flare and a hydrogen flame burns fast so that could have progressed back upstream to where you see that orange spot.
MacNEIL: Now let's advance the tape through to the explosion.
Mr. GREY: See it pulsing again, and then it works its way around to the outside. That's due to the vortex flow around the shuttle itself. And now it just finally ignites the whole tank and goes.
Mr. GREY: Now, there's a third possibility, too, and that is that somehow something happened to one of the main shuttle engines which were right opposite that --
MacNEIL: That's on the shuttle itself.
Mr. GREY: On the orbiter itself.
MacNEIL: Which were -- all right. Now, before we move on to that, David Scott, looking at those pictures in slow motion, does Mr. Grey's analysis of that make sense to you?
DAVID SCOTT: Oh, I think he's chosen some possibilities that seem rational to me.
MacNEIL: Do you agree that that flame is out of place there, that little flame that he identified? That should not be there?
Mr. SCOTT: No, it shouldn't be there.
MacNEIL: Would you care to speculate about why it would be there?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, I think Jerry's identified a couple of possibilities, and I think, again, the investigation team has to take a close look because film of this sort is --
MacNEIL: Shot from miles away through telescopic lenses and everything else.
Mr. SCOTT: And it takes some analysis in terms of telemetry they have on the ground, the flight profile and the other aspects which may influence such a new flight flame.
MacNEIL: Now, tell us about the telemetry. You mentioned this before we got on the air. Describe that. That is a stream of information coming back from many little sensors all over the spacecraft. How many of them would be recording the performance?
Mr. SCOTT: There are probably thousands of sensors all over the spacecraft.
MacNEIL: And each one is sending back its own stream of information?
Mr. SCOTT: Pressures, temperatures, displacements, motions and so on, and all that information is being recorded. Now, that little flame that we saw was present for almost -- probably even a little more than a second. That's a very long time for telemetry. The chances are, if there was something anomalous that were recorded by any of those sensors they will have been recorded. And NASA's analysis would be able to identify it.
MacNEIL: I mean, how often in a second are these sensors sending back information?
Mr. SCOTT: They're continuous information. They're either digital or analog, but they come back on a continuous basis. A trace such as you might see on a cardiogram is continually coming back, recording all of the events going on in many places within the engines and other places. If the explosion were caused by something that was being monitored, then it should be able to be identified from the examination of the telemetry records. If, on the other hand, it was caused by something that might have --
MacNEIL: That wasn't monitored.
Mr. SCOTT: -- that wasn't be monitored, we wouldn't know.
MacNEIL: Now, the explosion occurred -- we heard the NASA ground communicator saying it's okay for full power. They slow down, don't they, because the air pressure builds up as they're approaching orbital speed? Why did they slow the power down, or they reduce power initially right there?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, this is the area of what we call maximum dynamic pressure, which means that the air pressure on the vehicle because of the thickness of the air at that altitude and the speed of the vehicle through the air creates the maximum impact pressure, if you will, on the whole system.
MacNEIL: So they had reduced the spacecraft's own engines down to 65 or something of power --
Mr. GREY: Down to, well, a few percent.
MacNEIL: And they had just been given the okay for full power, and they had just throttled up to full power or were throttling up. What does it tell you that this happened within a few seconds of that throttling up procedure?
Mr. SCOTT: Not much, because --
MacNEIL: It doesn't tell you much?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, you're in an area of transience and dynamic changes and you could speculate that that might have been the cause. On the other hand, I don't think there's enough information here to really make a speculation.
MacNEIL: I heard one of your colleagues, Gene Cernan, an astronaut, saying today on ABC that that moment of moving from one speed to another on any engine is always a critical time. Now, does that suggest that it was possibly your point about the spacecraft engine?
Mr. GREY: As David pointed out, there are a lot of transient [sic] at that time. The increase in thrust is small. They go from, I think, 100 to 104 of thrust, so it's not a major change but it is a change. And there can be an oscillation at that time.
MacNEIL: What does an oscillation mean? It would shake a bit?
Mr. GREY: Any time you have a change means that there's got to be something happening. If that, for example the propellant valve moves a fraction of an inch too far there can be a slight pressure pulse. If this accident turns out to have been caused by the main engines, that's probably what happened. We don't know that that's the case. But it is one of the three major possibilities. A main engine failure could have flashed back and ignited the propellant coming out of the tank, as we saw, and caused the fire.
MacNEIL: I see. Now, has this takeoff moment which in any aircraft is a critical moment, and presumably even more so here since you're dealing with such volatile fuel and in such large quantities and everything. Has that moment in the shuttle program been more dangerous than we the public always -- the probabilities of risk greater than we've sort of been assuming because they've all seemed to have gone off without any hitch? Is that a dangerous moment?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, I think in relative terms the shuttle is much safer than previous spacecraft. As you probably know, there's no need or capability to abort on a pad. Which, if you're on the launchpad within the first few seconds I think NASA believes the shuttle is reliable enough, and I think it's been proven, that you don't have to have ejection seats or other --
MacNEIL: The first shuttle had ejection safety for the crew.
MacNEIL: Because it was an untried vehicle.
Mr. SCOTT: Sure. It was a test flight. But now we're in operational flights, and I think the shuttle is basically a very, very sound and safe vehicle. And for this particular occurrence it's one of those statistical improbabilities that occurred.
MacNEIL: But people like Senator Glenn, former astronaut and a former colleague, was saying today we probably always thought a day like this would come. Inherently there was a range of risk, was there not, in these things, and that's a critical moment in that range?
Mr. SCOTT: Yes, and I would agree with Senator Glenn, because I think we've been very fortunate to have had the engineering expertise to get us to this point without a major failure.
MacNEIL: There's one other thing. I know this is all speculation, but you are very much better informed than we are about these things. Is it sensible to speculate, even, that the fact that there was a lot of ice buildup on the launchpad and on the spacecraft which they had to clear off, that that could have in any way contributed to this situation today?
Mr. GREY: You know, anything is possible. There could have been any number of malfunctions. Possibly some insulation was damaged, causing a spark somewhere later. But the probability of that is really very, very low. The spacecraft is designed to operate in a very wide range of environments. In space it's well below freezing. Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, the propellants, are extremely cold. Icicles could have done some damage to pad systems; that is, say, the cooling water system that douses the pad and keeps it from being burned -- that's the launchpad. But it just doesn't seem likely that any icicles, unless they physically damaged the exterior of the vehicle, could have caused the problem. And I think NASA probably felt that way, too, since they did a final inspection before they launched.
MacNEIL: You are an expert in the booster engines, as I was told today and wrote in introducing you. What is the record of these engines under test circumstances and in actual flight circumstances? Do they fail?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, I think you can see that in flight circumstances they don't, and their reliabilities are very, very high. You know, the statistical probability of failure --
MacNEIL: We're talking now about the solid propellant engines on the outside.
Mr. SCOTT: Either one. I think that you might say the suite of engines that NASA has on this vehicle -- they have solids, they have the cryogenic main engines with hydrogen and oxygen, and they have the storable by-propellant as control thrusters in small engines on the vehicle itself. So they have all types of engines, and I think these are in some cases state of the art and in some cases old engines. But they're all very highly reliable, and I think the testing process that NASA goes through is extremely intense. And they've worked out their problems in the early days, and I think the performance has been quite good.
MacNEIL: Let us bring in a different point of view here, from Thomas Gold, a professor at Cornell University, who has been a long-time critic of manned space flights, particularly the shuttle program and the planned space station. Throughout the 1960s he was a member of the space panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee, which guided U.S. space policy. In the '70s he testified before Congress against the then-proposed shuttle program. He joins us tonight from public station WCNY in Syracuse.
Professor Gold, you told us earlier today you thought this sort of thing was bound to happen. Would you explain why you thought that?
THOMAS GOLD: Well, I think that most people who are concerned with the space program consider that space flight is inherently dangerous. Certainly I have said for years unfortunately we run that risk. My criticism is not now of the NASA engineers, who I think did their job extremely well. To get 24 flights off the pad and returned safely was a tremendous performance. The safety record is incredibly good and much better than many people, including myself, ever thought possible. The criticism that I make is entirely whether it is necessary to subject that many people that frequently to such a risk.
MacNEIL: Well, why have you opposed the idea of manned flights?
Prof. GOLD: Most of the jobs that we want to do at this time in space can be done far better, more cheaply and without personal risk, and with greater continuity with unmanned vehicles. To use men to take unmanned satellites into orbit, I personally think it's crazy. I mean, to make the whole thing a dangerous enterprise when it doesn't need to be that, I see no reason for that. The notion that practicing space flight in low orbit around the earth takes you any nearer to any of the desirable manned space enterprises, I think it's just plain wrong. I would be most enthusiastic if we could really fly to the stars or God knows what people are talking about. We cannot even conceive of flying to the nearest planet, to Mars, and land there with a manned mission so long as we don't have some great new invention of a totally different propulsion system. So long as we have to do it with chemical rockets we are not going to mount a manned flight, even to the nearest planet. So why do it? What are we gaining from practicing in close-earth orbit?
MacNEIL: Well, let me just put back the arguments that NASA has used for the shuttle -- that it is very versatile, that it is cheaper, that it is reusable, that it can bring men into a position where they can do things like repair satellites that instruments or mechanical devices cannot do.
Prof. GOLD: You will never bring the money for the shuttle back from repair work. I mean, that is just absolutely outlandish to think that you would repair that many things as to make good the investment in the shuttle. And the other stories? That it is versatile? But what has it been used for? For public relations work. And for various attempts, so far quite unsuccessful, in making any space --
MacNEIL: What has been lost scientifically by devoting so much money proportionately to manned space flight, say, since the landing on the moon? What has been lost scientifically that could have been gained by using the money otherwise?
Prof. GOLD: You have seen how wonderful these spacecraft, the unmanned spacecraft to the outer planets were, what magnificent results were brought back from them. The amount of experimentation that could have been carried out had we not devoted this huge amount of money to the manned space flight, that could have been used for perfecting such remote control -- I don't want to say robots, but remotely controlled machinery. We could have progressed far further in that direction, and we could have had much more wonderful vehicles still than the Voyager. We would have had much better communications systems because our present method of launching communications satellites is extremely clumsy. I'm sure that the unmanned vehicles will overcome, will win the day. The European Ariane will almost certainly launch most of the future communications satellites. All that could have progressed very much further, and many scientific missions were cancelled. I am myself a scientist and would like to see the scientific missions, but I fully realize that the utilitarian use of space is terribly important.
MacNEIL: Can I ask you to come back to the question of risk? Is it your argument that NASA has deliberately misled the country about the degree of risk involved in putting men up to do these things?
Prof. GOLD: That would be a very fierce accusation. What they have done, however, is I think imprudently used manned flight, which has a great deal of public appeal, and they have used it for the public relations aspect to a great extent, and they have then made what I think was just a pretense that manned space flight was going to be of some advantage for the utilitarian and for scientific satellites. For that I think it has no advantage at all.
MacNEIL: Do you think today's tragedy should cause the government and NASA to rethink this whole shuttle program and what is supposed to follow it?
Prof. GOLD: I certainly think that, yes. I certainly think that one should think very hard about using any man in space where he is not absolutely needed, or where he is not directly contributing to the future of space flight. Just to go and practice with more people in the same low orbit and do it time and again, 15 times a year, I think it is just a totally unnecessary and unwarranted risk.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. We'll come back. Jim?
LEHRER: Yes, we go now to a man who was an astronaut on the first flight of space shuttle Challenger in April, 1983. He is retired Air Force Colonel Donald Peterson, now an independent aerospace consultant, and he joins us tonight from Houston.
Colonel Peterson, Dr. Gold said this whole thing is crazy, to send men into space on the shuttle. Is he right?
DONALD PETERSON: Clearly I would diasgree with Dr. Gold. I really don't know Dr. Gold, and it's a little difficult discussing things in a matter of minutes that probably deserve some study. But I think even Dr. Gold would have to admit that, for example, if you compare what man can do as opposed to what can be done with automated systems, man is far more capable, far more flexible, and you only have to look at, for example, the difference between the United States and the Soviet lunar program to realize that we did far more in the way of understanding and learning about the moon by putting men there than the Russians were able to do with automated systems. I think the orbiter -- excuse me. Go ahead.
LEHRER: I was just going to say, so his basic charge, that we would be further along, there would be more progress in space exploration, with less manned space flight you just say is wrong, no?
Col. PETERSON: I think if you measure progress in terms of how many devices you might launch, Dr. Gold might be right. But I think if you measure progress in terms of our capacity to live and work and do meaningful things in space that man is far more capable than machines.
LEHRER: What about his charge that NASA was interested in the public relations aspect of this, of sending man into space?
Col. PETERSON: I think NASA is interested in good public relations in all of their programs. I don't see any difference in good public relations in the manned space program and in the Discoverer [sic] satellite that's out looking at Uranus, and in our interest in those pictures. I'm not against good public relations.
LEHRER: Did you feel as an astronaut that you were a tool of NASA public relations rather than as a scientist trying to explore the heavens?
Col. PETERSON: No, sir. I didn't feel that way. I suppose if you asked 100 people you'd get 100 different answers. But I think most of the people here feel that what we do in space is very important and that a manned capability is very important, and I think most of us feel very lucky to have been able to participate.
LEHRER: All right, you flew in this spacecraft in 1983. Do you have any theories as to what might have happened this morning?
Col. PETERSON: No, sir, I don't. I saw the same films that undoubtedly you've seen, and I don't think it really serves any purpose to speculate. And I don't know what happened.
LEHRER: Do you and other astronauts, did you, discuss the dangers that were involved in doing this kind of thing?
Col. PETERSON: Not in exactly those words. I think any person who is a career astronaut and who's watched space programs over the years understands that there's some element of risk in any flight. I think if you decide you want to be a career astronaut you accept that risk and then you learn to do your job and you do it. And I don't think you spend a great deal of time worrying about and discussing risks.
LEHRER: It was something you never discussed with your fellow astronauts?
Col. PETERSON: I remember one discussion with Paul Weitz who was the commander of our spacecraft, and basically he said, "There's some risk in this and if that's going to bother you, you ought not to go. And if it's not going to bother you, you ought to put it out of your mind and get on with the job." And that's the only discussion that I remember with other astronauts.
LEHRER: Was it something that you felt that your training prepared you for? Did NASA officials talk to you all and say, "Hey, wait a minute, you must understand. This thing could blow up up there. You could die or be seriously injured." Was it part of your training at all?
Col. PETERSON: No, sir, not in that sense. NASA hires people for these positions that are fairly knowledgeable people in engineering and science, and most of those people understand that you don't build perfect devices, and that occasionally a device will fail. And what we had today was a catastrophic failure, and in this program that's been very rare.
LEHRER: Senator Glenn and other fellow astronauts said today that there was a feeling, though, among astronauts that this was bound to happen some day. Did you have that feeling?
Col. PETERSON: I suppose if you're saying the space program was going to go on for hundreds of years that sooner or later a spacecraft will fail, I think yes, that's probably an inevitable occurrence. I would not say that I expected it on the 25th flight of the shuttle or the 50th flight of the shuttle or, if you named a flight I think the odds are that you'd be very safe.
LEHRER: Mr. Scott told Robin earlier that the shuttle was considered a relatively safe way to go into space vis-a-vis some of the earlier Apollo and other flights. Would you agree with that?
Col. PETERSON: I think the shuttle has, over the years that it's operated, has proven to be a very safe vehicle, notwithstanding what happened today.
LEHRER: Did you feel safe when you were up there?
Col. PETERSON: Yes, sir. I flew in the Challenger vehicle. We never had a minute's trouble with any phase of the flight and everything went exactly like it was supposed to.
LEHRER: During the first minute or two of launch was there any anxiety, a special anxiety that if something went wrong it was more likely to happen here than some other time during the flight?
Col. PETERSON: My personal feeling is that a great -- what risk there is to these flights that it is probably greater during the early minutes of ascent than anywhere else. And the reason I think that risk is greater is that there are not many options; there are not many alternatives at that point. If something very serious goes wrong in the first couple of minutes of a flight, it's very difficult to overcome that. Later in the flight there's a great deal more leeway and time for solving problems and more alternatives for dealing with them.
LEHRER: Colonel Peterson, thank you.
Col. PETERSON: Yes, sir.
MacNEIL: What's your reaction, David Scott, to Professor Gold's ideas on the manned space program?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, I guess I'd like to say that, in all due respect for Professor Gold's accomplishments, his opinions as reflected in his recent comments are not representative of those of his colleagues. I've worked very closely with the scientific and the technical communities for about 25 years in space and I've become acquainted and familiar with many of the people who are the drivers behind the scientific exploration, the technological exploration that we are conducting. And I think the vast majority of them would disagree with Professor Gold's opinion.
MacNEIL: And your opinion -- or you think theirs wouldn't be changed, as he says it should be changed as a result of today's tragedy, that it shouldn't be rethought, the whole program?
Mr. SCOTT: I believe the program has to be rethought in light of what happened today so as to be able to correct that, but in terms of the overall objectives of space exploration, science in space, technology in space, absolutely not. I think we're on the right track. I think the country has vision and perception, and unfortunately there are those in a minority who -- there's a good part to it. They keep us straight and they keep us thinking clearly.
MacNEIL: Professor Gold, are you in a very small minority?
Prof. GOLD: I don't think so at all. I think that the great majority of the people concerned with planetary exploration would be on the same side as I am. It is not at all true that most scientists are in favor of manned space flight. They're very much in favor, as I am also, of pursuing in a hard way, and harder than we've been doing, the whole business of space science and also the utilitarian flights. But to send men where they are not needed, I don't agree.
MacNEIL: Jerry Grey, as a space buff yourself, but also as a journalist, where do you think the balance of this argument lies?
Mr. GREY: You struck the right word, balance. The proper way to do what we've been doing is a balance. The photographs that came back from Uranus were on the same front page of The New York Time as the discussion of the shuttle launch, and that's proper. We should do both activities. Remember, although Dr. Gold is correct, most of the planetary scientists would be interested in seeing less manned flight, there is also another aspect of science. There are many life scientists who love the idea of being able to experiment. There are many observational scientists who would like to look down on the earth physically and be able to move their cameras and change them. There's a great deal of science that can be done from the shuttle. But more important, we are building a whole new industrial capability, and to try to do it totally with robots or automation just doesn't make sense. Man is still the perfect multipurpose computer and should be used with robotics to the maximum extent.
MacNEIL: So what should today's event lead to -- simply finding out the cause and correcting that, or a basic rethink of what we're doing?
Mr. GREY: I think we need to find out what happened on the shuttle today, very critically, to make sure that it never happens again. I think that's urgent --
MacNEIL: But that's sufficient?
Mr. GREY: I think we might want to rethink the pattern of hld be a mistake.
MacNEIL: I know you agree with that, and Mr. Peterson, you agree with that -- nd out what's wrong and correct it, but don't change the basic thrust?
Col. PETERSON: I agree with that. I also think that it would be a mistake at this point to stop using the shuttle for very long, even though this investigation might take awhile, because I think the shuttle is a key part of our launch capability in this country and it's necessary that we keep on flying these vehicles.
MacNEIL: Well, I'd like to thank you all for joining us, Professor Gold in Syracuse, Mr. Peterson in Houston, David Scott and Jerry Grey in New York. Jim?
LEHRER: Seven Americans died in that explosion downrange from Cape Canaveral, Florida, this morning. Before we go, Judy Woodruff reminds us again of who they were. Judy?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Four of the seven astronauts who died today were making their second voyage into space aboard the shuttle. Three were getting what was to have been their first thrilling ride. Six of the seven were married; five of them were parents, leaving among them 11 children.
Challenger's commander was Francis R. "Dick" Scobee, 46 years old, a veteran Air Force combat and test pilot. He was a pilot on a 1984 shuttle and had logged 6,500 hours of flight time. He is survived by his wife and two grown children.
Navy Commander Mike Smith, age 40, the pilot of the Challenger. He was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, had served in Vietnam and later flew as a Navy test pilot. This was his first space mission. He was married and had three children.
Physicist Ronald E. McNair took his first space flight in 1984. He was a civilian with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; an expert in laser research, he was 36 years old and the father of two.
Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Ellison Onizuka, 39, was a crew member of the top secret space shuttle mission last January. A native of Hawaii, he was a former aerospace engineer and pilot. He taught courses at the Air Force test pilot school in California before becoming an astronaut. He is survived by his wife and two children.
Thirty-six-year-old Judy Resnick held a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland. She had been a research scientist for RCA, the National Institutes of Health and the Xerox Corporation before joining the space program. She was single and had become an astronaut in 1978. It was her second mission.
Gregory Jarvis, 41, was a Hughes Aircraft Company engineer making his first trip into space. His mission was to test the effect of weightlessness on fluids carried in tanks. A native of Detroit, Jarvis is survived by his wife.
And, finally, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the Concord, New Hampshire, high school history teacher who was to be the first private citizen in space. She was selected last year from among some 11,000 teacher applicants. She had been preparing to conduct a class for her high school students from on board the Challenger. She is survived by her husband and two children. Christa McAuliffe was the most celebrated member of this space mission, winning as she did the privilege to be the first teacher in space. Her selection was announced by Vice President Bush at a White House ceremony last July. She acknowledged her gratitudeto the other finalists.
CHRISTA McAULIFFE, teacher-astronaut [July 19, 1985]: I've made nine wonderful friends over the last two weeks, and when that shuttle goes, there might be one body but there's going to be 10 souls that I'm taking with me. Thank you.
WOODRUFF: A little later that day Christa McAuliffe was interviewed on this program by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who asked her first why she felt she had been chosen from among all the entrants in the nationwide competition.
Ms. McAULIFFE: It's really hard to say. There were so many people. All 10 of us were excited about teaching, we loved the students, we're good communicators. I almost felt that the committee was going to have to put our names in a hat and just pick one out.
HUNTER-GAULT: Was there any one thing that you said or did or anything that you think may have made your application stand out?
Ms. McAULIFFE: Well, in my application not only am I very active in my community, but I also feel that fostering a real good national and international awareness is real important in students' lives. I also made my shuttle project something that everybody could identify with, a journal, a diary, something that would connect the ordinary person to the space age.
HUNTER-GAULT: In other words, your shuttle project is something that you have to do on the flight, right?
Ms. McAULIFFE: That's correct.
HUNTER-GAULT: And so you outlined all of this in your application?
Ms. McAULIFFE: Yes, we had to propose a project. And I wanted something that was unobtrusive, it wouldn't get away with the mission, something I could do. I'm not a science person, I'm not math incline, very easy, something that again would connect the students to history. And I also had been developing a course called "The American Woman," and it's a social history. It deals with the common, everyday people behind the military and the political and the economic events. So in this way it would also tie in with my course.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, how do you see that tying in? I mean, what is your experience in space? How is that going to relate to down-to-earth problems?
Ms. McAULIFFE: Well, we always see the astronauts, they are technologically wonderful, they do their scientific experiments, but that is their career. We don't really see space as a frontier, as a new way of living. And in our classrooms all teachers have to really identify students with different types of careers. What I wanted to do was to give the ordinary person's perspective, to really show them that there was a new way of living out there. And I think that that will be that connection. I really hope the students get excited about the space age, because they see me as an ordinary person up there in space and maybe can explain some of the things that the astronauts really either haven't taken the time, because they're very busy with their experiments, or maybe just for me to see it in a different light.
HUNTER-GAULT: Some cynics have suggested that this whole thing is just a publicity gimmick for NASA. Obviously with the project that you plan to do, you don't share that view.
[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] Reagan's special message to the nation from the White House this afternoon.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: We mourn seven heroes: Michaelnnot bear as you do the full impact of this tragedy, but we feel the loss and we're thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, "give me a challenge and I'll meet it with joy." They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve and they did.
They served all of us. We've grown used to wonders in this century. It's hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We've grown used to the idea of space and perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
I've always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don't hide our space program, we don't keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is, and we wouldn't change it for a minute. We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here. Our hopes and our journeys continue.
I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them, your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades and we know of your anguish. We share it.
There's a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said he lived by the sea, died on it and was buried in it. Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew their dedication was, like Drake's, complete. The crew of space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." Thank you.
LEHRER: Again, the space shuttle Challenger exploded a minute and a half after launch at Cape Canaveral this morning. All seven crew members aboard, including New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, died. The tragedy caused President Reagan and congressional leaders to postpone tonight's State of the Union address until next Tuesday night.
Briefly in other news today, Egyptian President Mubarak called for an international conference on combatting terrorism, and black students ended a two-year boycott of public schools in South Africa.
Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: Good night, Jim. That's our NewsHour tonight. We will be back tomorrow night. I'm Robert MacNeil. Good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour
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- NewsHour Productions
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- NewsHour Productions (Washington, District of Columbia)
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- Episode Description
- This episode's headline: The Shuttle Challenger. The guests include In New York: JERRY SCOTT, Former Astronaut; JERRY GREY, Aerospace America; In Syracuse, New York: THOMAS GOLD, Astronomer; In Houston: Col. DONALD PETERSON, Former Astronaut; Reports from NewsHour Correspondents: MARYANNE KANE, Concord, New Hampshire; CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT. Byline: In New York: ROBERT MacNEIL, Executive Editor; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor; JUDY WOODRUFF, Correspondent
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- Copyright NewsHour Productions, LLC. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode)
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- Moving Image
Producing Organization: NewsHour Productions
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: NH-0611 (NH Show Code)
Format: 1 inch videotape
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” 1986-01-28, NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 26, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-6w9668947w.
- MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” 1986-01-28. NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 26, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-6w9668947w>.
- APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Boston, MA: NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-6w9668947w