Views & Reviews
What’s in a name
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) named its space shuttles, Enterprise, Columbia, Discovery, Atlantis and Challenger after famous sea vessels. While the first space shuttle ‘Enterprise’ was built as a test vehicle and was not equipped for space flight, all the other four were made for undertaking space missions.
Of the five space shuttles, Challenger was the pride of America. The then USSR had already taken a headstart in space exploration, but the ‘Challenger’ was built to showcase American capability and superiority in undertaking space voyages. After its first mission in April 1983, Challenger became the mainstay of NASA’s space shuttle vehicles, flying more missions per year than Columbia. Even after the two other orbiters, Discovery and Atlantis, joined the fleet, it was the Challenger which was the workhorse of NASA. In 1983-84, Challenger flew on 85% of all space shuttle missions. Challenger even performed the first night launch and night landing of a space shuttle.Tragically, Challenger was also the first to be destroyed in an accident during a mission. It was on its 10th mission, and a very significant one in that because of the presence of Christa Mc Auliffe, who was selected from among thousands to be the first school teacher in space.
On January 28, 1986, after five weather related delays, the space shuttle Challenger lumbered heavenward amid a thunderous overture of noise and flame. A mere 73 seconds later, system failure tore the shuttle apart, and all the seven crew members perished.
The disaster was attributed to an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) which had failed at lift off. Insiders referred to the fatal mistake as “go fever” – the tendency to ignore vital precautions in the rush to a grand goal. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB aft field attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamics did the rest in breaking up the orbiter.
The disaster had to be for something, and more importantly for NASA the disaster had to be attributed to something. Yes, the O-ring seal failure can only lead to disaster in a shuttle launch because it is much akin to like our car mechanic fitting the car’s engine head without a casket, or with an old used leaking casket after all the painstaking hard work of boring the engine. Even the car mechanic checks the engine head, over and again, after the fit. This oversight can happen, but the probability is just too slim.
The Challenger disaster has been used as a case study in many discussions of engineering safety and work place ethics. Privately, many scientists attributes the Challenger disaster more to the ethical point of view. And this is where the ‘name’ comes into context.
It is one thing to name a sea vessel ‘Challenger’ way back in the 1870s, but to give a space shuttle which has to traverse the heavens into the unknown the name, ‘Challenger,’ is too much of a challenge. God, The Almighty, created the universe – the depth of which we can never ever even fathom. How can a space shuttle created with the very knowledge given to men by God Himself claim its name to be the challenger? Therein lies the unsaid true cause of the Challenger disaster. The orbiter was doomed from the day it was christened as Challenger. Thomas Carlyle had said, “All poetry is but a giving of names. Biography is the only true history: History is the garb of biography.”