Thirty years ago today, with millions watching on live TV, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. All seven crew members died.
Something else died too, and I’ll get to that in a moment. First, though, let’s remember those seven who “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” and sought to advance humankind’s understanding of space and technology.
Let’s remember also the seven astronauts who died aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 and the three who died in the Apollo 1 spacecraft in 1967. (In an eerie coincidence, the anniversaries of all three events fall within five days of each other.)
I grew up with the space program in the 1960s. I have an early memory of Alan Shepard becoming the first American to travel into space. (My mother, seated next to me at the TV, said “Pray for him.”) I had chills listening to the Apollo 8 astronauts read from the book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. (I still get chills at the memory.) When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon a few months later, it felt like the future was full of possibility.
In the ’60s the world was a mess, just as it is today. But the mood of the time was that science and technology could solve many of our problems. That they could — no, make that would — make things better for everyone. A succession of World’s Fairs, like the one in New York in 1964-65, gave us a glimpse into a future that looked pretty wonderful.
It was an exciting dream.
But even as Armstrong took that first walk on the moon, the dream was starting to fray. Just a few weeks earlier the Cuyahoga River had famously caught fire, forcing us to realize that technology, rather than making our lives better, might be fouling the environment.
The last Apollo flight splashed down in 1972, and no one has walked on the moon since. The 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown changed many people’s views about the virtues of nuclear power (including mine).
But for me that unquestioning faith in science and technology ended, finally, on the day Challenger exploded. Since then I think that we as a culture have understood that science and technology are neither good nor bad. Science is value neutral — seeking to understand the physical world as it is. Technology is simply a tool we can use to bring about good or bad, as we choose.
So let’s remember those who died. Through science and technology, they were trying to make things better.