The end of the space race?

The different reactions to the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the Columbia explosion in 2003 show changing visions of life on Earth.

Sandy Starr

Topics Science & Tech

On 28 January 2003, the seven crew members of the orbiting space shuttle Columbia mourned the deaths of the seven astronauts on Challenger, which 17 years earlier had exploded shortly after launch (1). Tragically, Columbia’s crew suffered the same fate only four days later, when on 1 February 2003, their shuttle exploded after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Although separated by 17 years, both disasters prompted a heated reaction from the international media and a re-evaluation of the US space programme. The political context for the disasters was very different, but comparing how the two events were understood can be illuminating.

In both cases, the authorities, and to a certain extent the media, tried to respond in a determined and resolute manner. Both President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and President George W Bush in 2003 were quick to respond with portentous statements that invoked religion – Reagan quoted a religious poem by airforce pilot John G Magee Jr, and Bush quoted the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (2).

But the reaction to the Columbia disaster has been rather less forward-looking than the reaction to Challenger was. This is partly because space exploration is less of a priority today. The US space programme, born in the Cold War in the 1950s, was still central to Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative in 1986 – even if it had ceased to elicit the kind of public enthusiasm that greeted the 1969 moon landing.

Bush, on the other hand – despite his positive statements about the space programme following the Columbia tragedy – has never had a political stake or a particular interest in space exploration. Prior to the disaster, he never visited the Houston space centre in Texas (either as president or as governor of Texas), and hardly ever mentioned the space programme when speaking in public (3).

Bush sounded less confident than Reagan in his response to the Columbia explosion. Reagan’s statement that ‘the Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them’ may have been pumped-up Cold War rhetoric. But it expressed a greater degree of confidence than Bush’s timid, religio-existentialist comments at a memorial service for the Columbia astronauts: ‘We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness, and pray they will return.’ (4)

The families of the Columbia astronauts have expressed an admirable determination that space exploration should continue. ‘Although we grieve deeply, as did the families of Apollo I and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on’, they say (5). But the media reaction to Columbia has been more ambiguous.

At its worst in the UK media, Columbia has become a pretext for expressing a low opinion of the USA, and of humanity in general. An editorial in the UK Independent claimed the disaster ‘is likely to mark a further stage in coming to terms with the limits of human endeavour’, and noted that ‘there can be no harm…in the US coming to terms with the idea of limits to its power’ (6).

Even in the US media, there has been an ambivalent reaction to the disaster. The Washington Post published its fair share of upbeat pieces, arguing that ‘the deaths of the Columbia astronauts…should not lead us to conclude that manned spaceflight is too risky or not worth funding’. But the paper also ran downbeat articles, arguing that ‘even as we mourn the tragic loss of the brave Columbia crew members, there is no blasphemy in honestly questioning the mission we assigned them – and whether it makes sense to renew it’ (7).

Compare this with the editorial run by the Washington Post in 1986: ‘The loss of a $2.2billion vehicle and the death of its seven-member crew only made real what too many people had tended to overlook: spaceflight…entails enormous risks…. No part of the rationale for manned flight ever was that it was easy and safe.’ Meanwhile in the UK, The Times was even starker in its reaction to Challenger: ‘Within the broad canvas of space exploration past and to come, the loss of life yesterday may be counted a small price to pay for progress.’ (8)

Not that everybody took the same view in 1986 – the UK Guardian was already preaching caution and pessimism after Challenger, urging its readers to beware ‘the next time some vision of the new future portrays a sweeping technological answer to questions we have not even yet begun fully to ask’ (9).

Another interesting difference between 1986 and 2003 was the fallout from each disaster. The Challenger disaster resulted in a two-year suspension of US space shuttle missions and irrevocable damage to public confidence and government investment in the space programme. Also, like the Columbia disaster, Challenger initiated a debate about the relative merits of manned and unmanned space exploration.

Yet despite these serious consequences, public discussion of space exploration remained fairly upbeat in 1986, especially in America. While the UK Guardian reported ‘a general fear in the administration…of a backlash against technology when the initial talk of heroes and adventure ceases’, the New York Times argued that ‘there is no going back…in the end, there is an enduring optimism that technology’s benefits generally outweigh its ill effects and the disastrous moments that seem to make it undesirable’ (10).

There have been similar expressions of optimism following Columbia, with BBC News confidently reporting that ‘NASA has been in this position before with the Apollo fire and the Challenger explosion…. It has adapted and thrived before, and will do so again’. But the uncertain mood that has characterised the USA since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 is not conducive to such forward-looking views. As the Washington Post reports: ‘There was to the sadness…a sense of misfortunes multiplying…. There was the approaching war with Iraq, a wounded economy, a city still brittle in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks – and now the shuttle.’ (11)

The damage done to the space programme following the Columbia disaster is even worse than the damage done by Challenger. The future of the troubled International Space Station – which, whatever its faults, is still the torch-bearer for ambitious manned space projects – has been cast further into doubt. Russia, which recently sent the first paying tourist into space (in the face of opposition and derision from NASA), has now indefinitely suspended its space tourism programme (12).

It is also interesting to compare the emotional reaction to the two tragedies. There was a strong human-interest story after Challenger, in the death of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who was to have been the first civilian in space (13). Newspapers devoted substantial column inches to McAuliffe’s death. Newspaper articles tended to focus on the trauma of McAuliffe’s pupils, who were watching the Challenger launch when it exploded. The Daily Mail’s coverage was typical: ‘There were seven astronauts who died in yesterday’s space shuttle disaster but it was always going to be McAuliffe’s mission.’ (14)

Interestingly, the Challenger disaster was one of the first events of global interest to be broadcast live internationally, via cable TV. As a result, it became a widely shared emotional experience with a slightly ersatz quality – a precursor to the kind of televised tragedy that is now common and which reached its apotheosis after 11 September. The Guardian’s Hugh Herbert was quick to pick up on the phenomenon, complaining two days after the Challenger disaster that ‘the scale of the reaction was determined not by the suffering of people who knew the seven who died, but by the fact that it had been turned into a spectator event’ (15).

And yet the reaction to Challenger was still different to that which met Columbia. While there was emotional outpouring around Challenger, it was nothing compared to the media hype and expressions of grief by politicians that now routinely follow tragic events. Coverage of public mourning for Columbia’s crew even precipitated an angry backlash, with commentators claiming that the media had disingenuously played up the public’s grief (16).

Also, where the reaction to the Challenger explosion expressed a strong sense of shock at this terrible event, much of the reaction to Columbia viewed it as just another thing gone wrong in our mixed-up world – slotting it in with post-11 September blues, economic and political problems, and everything else.

The media’s post-Columbia scramble for emotional responses to the tragedy is a world away from the coverage of public reaction after Challenger. The Washington Post described a tour of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum that took place immediately after the 1986 disaster: ‘After the appropriate pause, the tour had resumed. So will the space programme.’ And the Guardian reported two days after the disaster that ‘the British may have the reputation but it is the Americans these days who have the stiff upper lip…. The Johnson Space Centre here is an American national showcase but there was nothing to show yesterday except stoicism’ (17).

On the one hand, certain aspects of the Challenger disaster – the international media phenomenon, the widespread depiction of McAuliffe as a tragic figure – developed to become predominant features of the way in which tragedies are reported today. On the other hand, the greater sense of uncertainty that surrounds world events today, and the lack of a strong ideological motive for space exploration, make the handling of Challenger seem confident in a way that is now difficult to understand.

There can be no going back to the days of the Cold War – and to be nostalgic for that era simply because it was a more ambitious time for space exploration would be misguided. Indeed, even before the Cold War ended, Challenger sounded a death-knell for manned space exploration as a field of American ambition and effort.

But now that it is no longer so politicised, surely this is the perfect time to argue for space exploration not only for its scientific benefits (which are important), but for its own sake – because it pushes back the boundaries of what humanity can achieve and imagine. If we are to adopt such an enlightened view, the one thing we can usefully learn from the Cold Warriors of yesteryear is a more pragmatic attitude toward risk and disaster.

Read on:

Challenging Columbia, by Norman Levitt

2001: Retreat from the Space Odyssey, by Sandy Starr

Why have we still not walked on Mars?, by Henry Joy McCracken

(1) See Crew paid tribute to astronauts who perished on earlier missions, David Bamber, Sunday Telegraph, 2 February 2003

(2) See President Reagan’s speech on the Challenger disaster, 28 January 1986; President addresses nation on space shuttle Columbia tragedy, 1 February 2003

(3) See A president’s attention is turned toward space, Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times, 3 February 2003; Just a waste of space, Matthew Engel, Guardian, 4 February 2003

(4) President Bush attends memorial service for Columbia astronauts, 4 February 2003

(5) Statement: the victims’ families, Guardian, 3 February 2003

(6) A space tragedy that reminds us of the limits to human endeavour, Independent, 3 February 2003

(7) Our age of discovery, Max Boot, Washington Post, 3 February 2003; Why the space dream lives on, David Beers, Washington Post, 9 February 2003

(8) Editorial, Washington Post, 30 January 1986; Editorial, The Times, 30 January 1986

(9) Editorial, Guardian, 29 January 1986

(10) ‘The Pentagon fights to keep Star Wars aloft’, Alex Brummer, Guardian, 31 January 1986; ‘Faith in technology is jolted, but there is no going back’, John Noble Wilford, New York Times, 29 January 1986

(11) Turning point for US space effort, David Whitehouse, BBC News, 2 February 2003; Nation manages ‘one disaster after another’, Michael Powell, Washington Post, 3 February 2003

(12) See Space station and shuttle missions may be mothballed for years, Charles Arthur, Independent, 3 February 2003; Space station threatened with oblivion, Tim Radford, Guardian, 4 February 2003; Russia suspends space tourism, BBC News, 3 February 2003

(13) See Christa McAuliffe: A Biography, on the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium website

(14) ‘Children watch space teacher die’, Peter Sheridan, Daily Mail, 29 January 1986

(15) ‘Warning for the global village’, Hugh Herbert, Guardian, 30 January 1986

(16) See US mourns? Don’t believe it, John Balzar, Los Angeles Times, 5 February 2003; Hero worship, Robert Kuttner, American Prospect, 5 February 2003; Admit it: you don’t care all that much about seven dead astronauts. Here’s why, Will Leitch, The Black Table, 5 February 2003; Tragedy becomes us, William Powers, National Journal, 7 February 2003

(17) ‘In space, still’, Richard Cohen, Washington Post, 29 January 1986; ‘Stoic restraint at the Johnson Space Centre’, Christopher Reed, Guardian, 30 January 1986

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Topics Science & Tech


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