Challenger Case Study

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  • Topic: Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Space Shuttle, Kennedy Space Center
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A Case Study in Narrative & Social Memory Formation
Nick Baker
December 20, 2004
At 73 seconds into flight on January 26, 1986, while traveling at nearly twice the speed of sound, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all seven crew members. At least, that is how the Challenger disaster is generally remembered. A more specific account would mention the fact that the shuttle itself did not explode, but was ripped apart by aerodynamic forces when one of the solid rocket boosters ignited the external fuel tank. The destruction of the shuttle left the crew cabin intact, and there is evidence that members of the crew survived the explosion and were conscious during their two minutes and forty-five seconds of free fall. While the force of the explosion was not enough to kill the crew, impact with the water at 200 miles per hour certainly was.

The Rogers Commission worked to create an explanation of the tragedy which has been used as a touchstone for most subsequent analyses of the events. The result of the Commission’s ritualistic assignment of blame for the disaster was a narrow focus on technical and bureaucratic causes. However, it is possible to spread the blame much more widely, or conversely to eliminate it entirely, based on alternative narratives of the disaster. This national tragedy was seared into the minds of an entire generation of people who were in grade school at the time, for the simple reason that Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher, was on board. Billed as a “teacher in space,” it was NASA’s ultimate public relations stunt, and it backfired miserably. This disaster, NASA’s online archive of documents related to the mission, and the commemoration of the event ten years later, shed light on the formation of collective memory and a narrative that is oddly opposed to the actual events. In order to make sense of the disaster within a meta-narrative of frontiers, pioneers, and explorers, the gruesome facts of the astronauts’ deaths were quietly expunged from social consciousness. Methodology

For primary sources on the disaster, I have relied on the report of the Rogers Commission, NASA’s online archive of shuttle missions, newspaper accounts and scholarly works. I also make use of newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and speeches on the decennial of the disaster for my investigation of the formation of social memory. The Disaster

The Events
With the success of the Shuttle program in the early 1980s and the routinization of access to space being trumpeted, NASA began inviting ordinary citizens to join shuttle crews. Just a few weeks before the Challenger mission, Congressman Bill Nelson (D. Florida) went into space aboard the shuttle Columbia. Not coincidentally, Nelson was chairman of the subcommittee in Congress that oversaw NASA’s budget.1 The decision to send a teacher into space was also politically motivated, as President Reagan was looking for advantage on the issue of education. In July of 1985, Vice President Bush announced that Christa McAuliffe had been selected from over 11,000 applicants to be the first teacher in space. Barbara Morgan was chosen as an alternate in case McAuliffe was unable to complete her mission.2 In the same month that McAuliffe’s selection was announced, Congress cut five percent from NASA’s budget, forcing the agency to operate on one third of the money available during the Apollo program. This cut led to shortages as the allocation for spare parts was reduced by over two thirds.3 Suddenly NASA found itself without enough spare parts to meet its ambitious flight schedule, and turned to cannibalizing other orbiters for vital parts. Columbia’s launch, scheduled for December of 1985, was delayed for over a month, so that the orbiter didn’t return 1 McConnell, Challenger, p. 14.

2 Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision, p. 29.
3 Vaughan, ibid., p. 29.
to Earth until January 18, 1986. As soon as possible after Columbia...
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