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A Personal Reflection on the Loss of STS-51-L (Challenger)

I was rooting around in the garage the other day; not really looking for anything in particular;  just looking to remind myself of things I keep around. I have lots of “keepsakes” from my life. Not collectibles . . . hardly, but little things that remind me of events I’ve experienced in one way or another. It could be a ticket to a Lakers’s playoff game (against the Celtics, no less), a “Nixon, Humphrey, Wallace – Three Strikes and You’re Out” button, or a bar mitzvah boy decoration that once sat atop my birthday cake over 50 years ago.

All three of these items have powerful memories associated with them, though each was quite different in the degree to which those things I remember actually affected my life. All three have also faded with time so , interestingly, the one that seems to have the strongest memories is the Lakers ticket. I suppose it makes sense. Even though it’s been over 25 years since it happened, it was the first time the Lakers ever beat the Celtics for the championship. On the other hand, though politics and religion have always played a major role in my life, my everyday existence has not been impinged upon too much by governmental activity and I’ve been an atheist since I was 16. Basketball, however, comes back around every season to refresh the wounds and triumphs and, even though I don’t watch many games any more, the finals are always exciting.

I didn’t actually come across any of these items the other day, but I did come across an item which has more meaning for me – in many ways – than all three of the others combined. As I opened up a piece of old decorative pottery someone once gave me, I found the medallion I’ve pictured below. I suspect most everyone who might read this post is familiar with the Challenger disaster but, just in case some aren’t, the Challenger Space Shuttle Orbiter, one of five orbiters to once exist in the NASA fleet, was lost in an explosion during launch on January 28, 1986. Clicking on the picture will take you to NASA’s official site for this launch. This month marks the 25th anniversary of what was both a national, nay, human tragedy and the beginning of a new life for me.

 

Challenger STS-51L Mission Patch

Challenger STS-51L Mission Patch

 

Finding this medallion at this time seems somewhat serendipitous to me, as it neatly intersects with so much of my life these past 25 years. Let me explain and I will try not to bore you.

When Challenger exploded I was working in Century City, Los Angeles, California at a litigation support firm. Our business was to organize the information available from mountains of questions (called interrogatories in the legal profession) and their answers, as well as transcripts of real-time examinations of witnesses and parties (called depositions). The two main cases we were involved with were family battles over empires worth hundreds of millions of dollars, so there was a lot at stake (silly and humorous as it was to me).

There was a grill and pub inside the building I worked in, which I frequented for lunch and a couple of adult beverages in the evening whilst waiting for the Northbound insanity on the 405 to subside. This generally took a few hours, but it was a congenial place and I enjoyed the company of numerous denizens. Sometimes I would eat dinner there as well. It wasn’t like the sports bars we have today, but they had a television in there and, now that I think about it, I believe it was the only one. There were no flatscreens, no HD, etc. After all, it was 1986. A long time ago . . . in terms of consumer technology, at least.

When I heard the news, though I now wonder  how it traveled so fast without Twitter to carry it, I immediately left my desk and went down to the pub. I can’t recall if the TV was on when I entered, but it was certainly on shortly after I got there. I watched in horror as the news showed the explosion of Challenger over and over and over and over and . . . well, you know . . . over. To this day, I can’t stand to watch it again. Without even closing my eyes, right now I can see the two solid rocket motors splitting off, yet continuing to ascend under power after the orbiter disintegrated. It was a horrendous site and it cost the lives of seven intrepid souls, including the woman who would have been the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe.

These seven people gave their lives that we and our children might more fully live ours. They deserve to be honored and I wish to acknowledge them here:

Michael J. Smith
Dick Scobee
Ronald McNair
Ellison Onizuka
Christa McAuliffe
Gregory Jarvis
Judith Resnik

I have long been a space cadet (in more than one sense 🙂 ) and I am a staunch supporter of our space program, as well as one who strongly believes we must establish a cultural – not merely technological – presence in space and on other worlds. When I was a boy living in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, I vividly recall hearing the sound of the Saturn vehicle’s second and third stage engines (the J-2) being tested at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susanna Field Laboratory and seeing the sky above turn red over the hills to the West. I also recall laying on the grass in front of our home and watching Sputnik go by overhead when I was 10 years old. I dreamed of going into space; still do, though I have no real expectation of doing so other than in my imagination.

A year after Challenger was destroyed, thanks to a bit of serendipity (and Apple One), I found myself showing up as a temp worker on the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) program’s efforts to return to flight after the disaster. Although the SSME was not a factor in the tragedy, the team was using the resultant stand-down to re-assess the likelihood of one of the three engines which are responsible for lifting the shuttle into low earth orbit (LEO) failing at any time in a mission.

A year later, despite not being an Engineer, I found myself working as a full-time employee of Rockwell International‘ on the Flight Operations Team of the SSME. Last year (in May), I took an early retirement package offered to those of us 60 years and older. It’s been about eight months now since my separation from the place I worked at for most of a 23 year period and the 28th of this month will mark the 25th year since these seven brave astronauts perished on a cold, wintry Florida day. I find it ironic (and painfully humbling) to realize their deaths intersect with the birth of my first real career (I had been in many small business until that point, some as an employee, others as a partner) and now this anniversary comes so close on the heels of my leaving. Although I grieve for having left the place I thought I would work at until I dropped dead, I still find an even larger hole in my heart for having lost the crew of Challenger, as well as the vehicle that killed them.

If you have a special memory of these people or this tragedy, I hope you’ll share it somewhere during this anniversary.

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About Rick Ladd

Born in 1947, I was an officially retired pensioner, but in January of 2015 I returned to work as a contractor at Aerojet Rocketdyne. I remain intensely interested in, and fascinated by, Systems Thinking, Knowledge Management, Decision Intelligence, and Business in general. I am also conversant in such concepts as innovation and ideation, collaborative tools and strategies, crowd sourcing, and the use of social media to accomplish goals ranging from improving business processes to promoting small retail businesses. While "retired" I did a little bit of freelancing as an editor/proofreader, as well as some technical writing. There's lots more where that came from. Need some help? Perhaps another set of eyes? Contact me. The first one's free! ;0) View all posts by Rick Ladd

3 responses to “A Personal Reflection on the Loss of STS-51-L (Challenger)

  • Good Bye Endeavour « Systems Savvy

    […] (what they called a “Job Shopper”) working on the return to flight efforts after the Challenger disaster, it took a while for me to realize I could work there. Not being an Engineer, it somehow […]

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  • Trisha

    Rick, thank you for sharing the meaning that this anniversary has for you. I do remember the horror and disbelief of seeing the Challenger explode and thinking it could not be real. I think my primary memory is the shock – ‘how could this have happened?’

    And with your post inviting me to think more about the event, how interesting, my second memory involves you! I was fortunate to attend Edward Tufte’s seminar long ago, and one of the most compelling stories he told was how the O-ring temperature vulnerabilities could have been so much more clearly demonstrated graphically. My experience of being in that seminar has really stuck with me. And I think one of my very first interactions with you was when you shared a tools assessment chart in the Jive community, and I paid you a Tufte compliment.

    Funny how things spiral back to themselves and are connected!

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    • Rick Ladd

      Hi Trisha – Thanks for your comment. Yeah, it is funny how things are connected. What’s that old saying? “What goes around, comes around.” Actually, now that I think about it, I believe that one’s used more for explaining the concept of Karma than anything else. Hmm. I’m still working on my first cup of coffee and getting over this stomach flu, laryngitis bug I picked up, so I quite likely haven’t the faintest idea of what I’m talking about.

      Speaking of connections again, though – and I’m pretty sure I’ll get this right – I too attended one of Tufte’s seminars quite some time ago here in Los Angeles. As a result, I am not only the proud owner of his three books (all autographed) but also two of the more famous graphics he used to illustrate his points (The Salyut Cyclogram and Napolean’s March to Moscow in the War of 1812), also autographed. I had them mounted. Now that I no longer work at PWR, they await a more suitable place for display.

      Having been in the industry Tufte remonstrated for such unclear presentations of data (I think Professor Richard Feynman tore them a new one as well), I can testify to seeing literally hundreds of presentations that were really difficult to follow. We used to call many of them “Eye Charts” as in having one’s eyes examined. I doubt things have changed much in all this time. As resilient and changeable as humans can be individually, it seems we can also be incredibly stubborn and recalcitrant as a group.

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