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Remembering the Challenger Disaster

By Kerry M. Flynn and Rebecca D. Robbins, Crimson Staff Writers

At 5 a.m. on the first icy winter days of 1986, Iris M. Mack used to exercise.

On some mornings, the fifth-year graduate student at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences jogged by the frozen Charles River. On others, she went to the gym to lift weights with two male friends.

“I was crazy,” she recalls of those freezing early mornings. “But back then I was in tip-top shape.”

Mack was training in pursuit of a dream—a spot in the NASA space shuttle mission specialist program, which she planned to apply to upon receiving her Ph.D. in applied math that spring.

Encouraged by her mentor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated astronaut Ronald McNair—who was then preparing to go into space onboard the 1986 Challenger space shuttle expedition—Mack signed up for flying lessons and continued her rigorous workout routine.

She was heading out for a daytime run on Tuesday, January 28 when she heard the news.

The Challenger—with McNair, high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, and five other astronauts onboard—had exploded 73 seconds into its flight.

As news of the tragedy spread across Harvard’s campus, the disaster set into motion emotional, professional, and institutional changes in how students and researchers viewed the space program.

A CAMPUS CONFUSED

Tracy E. Velazquez ’86 was walking into the Mather House tower when she found out about the disaster.

John P. Dennis III ’86 was interviewing in Washington, D.C. for a post-graduation career in the Navy when the news broke.

Wade E. Roush ’89 was in the Science Center doing a programming assignment when a student announced what had happened. Roush ran across the Yard back to Straus Hall and spent the rest of the day glued to the television, watching coverage of the disaster.

In Leverett House, Joseph F. McCafferty Jr. ’86 and his roommates gathered in their dorm room to watch replays “over and over.” McCafferty recalls that many students did not attend their afternoon classes.

“Campus life kind of slowed, if not stopped,” says Velazquez. “You went back from where you were when you heard about it and watched television.”

The tone on campus was “quite subdued and somber,” says Christopher S. Yoo ’86.

According to Darren A. Thierry ’86, the black community at Harvard was particularly affected by the death of Mack’s mentor McNair, who was African-American.

As a member of Kappa Alpha Psi—a historically black fraternity chartered at MIT—during his time at Harvard, Thierry recalls that McNair had been a member of another MIT fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.

“I just remember talking to friends, saying, ‘Hey, there was a brother on that flight,’” Thierry remembers.

Likewise, many in the scientific community at Harvard mourned the loss of the astronauts.

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan C. McDowell says that he and his colleagues identified with the astronauts who had been killed on the flight.

“For those of us who were following it, they were not just faceless astronauts,” he says. “They were people we knew a little about.”

But after the immediate shock had subdued, some College students began making “tasteless” jokes about the disaster, recalls Michael J. Youmans ’86.

The Crimson’s weekly magazine published a feature that questioned whether it was too soon to make light of the disaster. The piece received widespread criticism for its inclusion of many jokes.

“I remember it being an attempt at humor at a time of national tragedy. People turn to humor. It wasn’t a very proud moment,” says Ari Z. Posner ’86.

DREAMS DEFERRED

Although most students worked through their grief over the tragedy in the subsequent weeks, others experienced lasting changes in their career aspirations.

As the NASA shuttle program entered a 32-month hiatus in the wake of the explosion, Mack’s plans to enter the space program were instantly halted.

“I would have sent my application in right away,” she says. “But I didn’t apply because there was nothing to apply to.”

Mack recalls feeling a sense of sadness at the delay of her goal.

“Now I’ve seen real problems,” Mack says. “But at the time, I was disappointed because it threw off my big plan.”

Upon receiving her Ph.D. four months later, Mack instead left Harvard to take a teaching position at MIT.

Two years later, when the shuttle program was revived, Mack was finally able to pursue her dream. She applied to the shuttle program, making it to the semifinalist round of interviews.

Roush also changed his career path in response to the Challenger disaster.

As a dual concentrator in physics and astronomy who had been “fantasizing about being an astronaut,” Roush says he became disillusioned with his studies after the disaster.

He began to critically analyze the risks of the space program and what he saw as the “bureaucracy” of NASA, which he and others thought may have failed to prevent the explosion.

“I had a pretty romantic notion before going to college,” he says. “Seeing how so much can ride on a program like the space shuttle helped to open my eyes.”

Roush changed his concentration to history and science and later wrote his Ph.D. thesis on technological disasters. He now works as a technology journalist.

Even students who did not change their career plans say that the disaster forever changed the spirit of their generation.

For undergraduates at the College, most of whom were not even born at the time of the John F. Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster was their first experience of a national tragedy.

“We were a sheltered generation in terms of American history,” Velazquez says.

The disaster also awakened students to the dangers of the shuttle program, which, in the years preceding the tragedy, had been envisioned as a future form of commercial transportation.

Christa McAuliffe, who boarded the Challenger as the first schoolteacher hoping to travel to space, represented the beginning of the fulfillment of that promise.

“It was practically like riding a bus,” recalls Paul F. Vittimberga ’86 of the pre-Challenger notion of shuttle flight. “[The disaster] kind of pulled back on the dream of the shuttle. It wasn’t exactly a bus ride to space,” he says.

“There was a sense that the space program would never be the same,” Yoo adds.

RESEARCH REVERSED

While the Challenger disaster jeopardized the abstract dreams of a generation of aspiring astronauts, the tragedy also had tangible effects on the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), where professionals and academics were studying, researching, and developing projects for the space program.

Located at 60 Garden St., the CfA was officially created in 1973 and combined projects under the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Center.

The CfA had a direct connection with the Challenger, having designed an infrared telescope aboard the shuttle’s previous 1985 mission.

McDowell says that the disaster caused developmental and financial setbacks at the CfA, where he began working as an astrophysicist in 1987.

“We were making a big slow turn in one direction, and we had to make a screeching U-turn,” McDowell says. “We lost a good part of a decade in space exploration as a result of this.”

For example, the hiatus of the shuttle program delayed several satellite projects at the CfA.

Before the disaster, many scientists believed that all future projects were going to fly into space aboard shuttles, which were then seen as the most dependable vehicle to carry complicated and expensive payloads, according to Harvey D. Tananbaum—a senior astrophysicist and director of the Chandra X-ray Observatory Center.

After spending years and millions of dollars developing satellites that would be safe alongside astronauts for shuttle launches, researchers now had to temporarily redesign satellites to be compatible with rocket launch.

“We were all very eager to have this go, so that was a big deal when [the program] stopped,” says Astronomy Professor Robert P. Kirshner ’70, who had designed a satellite that was intended to be launched aboard a shuttle.

Given its supposed reliability, the shuttle had also once been envisioned as a way to allow scientists to perform their own experiments in space.

But Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at the CfA, says that the death of six astronauts and a civilian aboard a shuttle made that hope unrealistic.

“No way we were going to be flying to space with our own experiments after this, which was the fantasy originally,” Elvis says.

During the shuttle program hiatus, researchers at the CfA did not halt their research entirely, but they were forced to work entirely with old data, according to McDowell.

“There was plenty of work to do, but people lost direction a little bit,” says Roush, who had secured work-study employment at the CfA before he changed his academic path.

Irwin I. Shapiro, the director of the CfA from 1983 to 2004, says he does not recall a serious detrimental impact on the observatory, but says the disaster  caused a number of short term difficulties for the space program.

For example, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope was delayed in response to the Challenger, which in turn delayed the launch of the CfA’s Chandra telescope—described as an X-ray version of the Hubble.

Although the CfA had begun work on Chandra in the 1980s, they did not receive a contract to develop it until 1991, two years after the return of the shuttle program. The telescope was finally launched in 1999.

—Staff writer Kerry M. Flynn can be reached at kflynn@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at rrobbins@college.harvard.edu.

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Commencement 2011Class of 1986