Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Challenger and the Idea of Space Travel

The crew of the Challenger
Thirty years ago today seven US astronauts were killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 78 seconds after launch.

At the time I was in third grade at Birch Grove Elementary in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Our teachers wheeled TVs into a classroom so we could watch the coverage. We may have been watching the whole launch, especially since a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was on board, but what I remember most is the aftermath: stunned and distraught teachers and confused and distraught kids. As a space-loving nine-year-old, it was one of the saddest days I had experienced in my young life.

After the Challenger disaster a lot of people have wondered if space travel is worth the risk. Given the dangers and expenditures involved in human space flight, maybe we would be better off focusing on our problems here on Earth.

Others are more qualified to comment on the commercial and scientific benefits of space travel, but as a philosopher and science fiction fan it seems to me that another possible benefit involves the very idea of space travel.

The Idea of Space Travel

I’ve always liked the idea that space travel can inspire the best in us while it spurs scientific discoveries and technological innovation. This makes it a lot like one of humanity’s more ancient pastimes: war. But unlike war, space travel doesn’t have the nasty side effects of hatred, killing, and destruction. Sure, the space race of the 1950’s-1980’s was in large part a side effect of the US-Soviet Cold War, but at least it produced something other than stockpiles of nuclear weapons and casualties of proxy wars. I’ll take Velcro over ICBMs any day.  (Okay, I know Velcro wasn't invented by NASA, but it was popularized in space.  Besides, that line sounded cool).

One of my favorite science fiction series, Octavia Butler’s Earthseed Duology, involves the idea that if we took space travel -- rather than war or political domination -- as a goal, humanity would benefit. What the idea space travel gives us, beyond any material benefits, is an organizing goal. Butler’s suggestion was that we need such a goal to provide focus.

Without a goal, humanity languishes in the destructive and petty squabbles that populate the previous 5,000 years of recorded history. If we keep our eyes on the prize and in the skies we’ll be less likely to see each other as obstacles or opponents. We might work together for a common goal instead of against each other for petty, selfish goals. Space travel encourages us to think, not just about the meaning of individual human lives, but of the meaning of the life of the human race in general.

Of course, the Cold War origins of space travel in the 20th century show us that space travel could also serve less than lofty purposes. Eventually it could create new divisions between haves and have-nots (as in Bladerunner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Still, I think we could look to extraterrestrial space as a place to make a new future rather than bringing the worst of our past to brave new worlds. A great example here is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, although I think we would do well to take the warning of Robinson’s recent novel Aurora to remember our connection to the Earth even as we venture beyond it.

It is a fitting tribute to the seven brave Challenger astronauts that they died, not so we can have better satellites or even to expand the boundaries of science, but for the idea that human beings could work toward a constructive endeavor that ennobles and enriches us all.

Post Script: Other Tributes

I don’t often say anything nice about Ronald Reagan, but his address to the nation after the Challenger explosion is a moving tribute (I’m so moved I’m inclined to ignore the problematic colonial context of his reference to Sir Francis Drake).

I had forgotten about Reagan’s speech until I heard another moving tribute from the Australian instrumental post-rock band, We Lost the Sea (you can hear clips from Reagan’s speech at the very end of Part 2).


  1. They were killed by politics. NASA launched is conditions too cold because Reagan wated to grand stand.

    1. I haven't looked into Reagan's personal involvement (although it wouldn't surprise me). I have heard that the culture at NASA at the time wasn't as careful as it should have been. Maybe political pressures are part of the risk of space travel. Or maybe it's a warning about how NOT to operate a space program.

  2. Here's a nice article on one of the Columbia astronauts (Columbia is the shuttle that broke up while re-entering the atmosphere on Jan. 31, 2003 - another sad anniversary):

  3. I really enjoyed this particular piece. Thanks for sharing.

  4. An article on US Presidential candidates' views on NASA: