Friday, January 28, 2011
I shot an arrow into the air...
By the time the Challenger vaporized in real time before millions of stunned viewers 25 years ago I was already an avowed news junkie and I was auditing a course taught by the legendary Howard Ziff, founder of the highly regarded Umass journalism program.
Coincidentally enough he had scheduled the editor of the Concord Monitor, Christa McAuliffe's hometown newspaper, to be a guest lecturer that semester and he appeared only weeks after the disaster.
I asked him what he would have done if he absolutely knew beyond a shadow of a doubt the Challenger would explode that morning but had no corroboration. He looked me directly in the eye and said (with his voice somewhat trembling) he would have done "Anything--absolutely anything--to get the word out, including standing in town center naked with a warning tattooed to my butt."
Of course in 1986 the Internet was strictly a niche work area for nerdy scientists plus the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was not even born. Still, the viral spread of news about the stunning disaster was nothing short of amazing. Within an hour 85% of Americans had heard about it and most of them ran to their televisions to watch it...over and over again.
I knew one of the astronauts, Ron McNair--a traditional style black belt who fought in local karate tournaments in the Boston area even though NASA disapproved. And my only verbal interaction with him after we fought at Rocky DiRico's tournament was to tell him how cool I considered it that he still did what he loved even though it made his bosses nervous.
He said something to the effect that he also loved equally being an astronaut, and could not conceive of giving up either. Christa McAuliffe loved being a teacher. Ironically in a preflight interview she had said it would be cool to go from teaching history to making it.
I have often wondered if the Power of the Web had been harnessed prior to that ill-fated flight if it could have made the life or death difference? Perhaps a word of warning sounded by an engineer (on his personal blog) who helped design the o-rings and knew they were not safe in sub freezing temperatures would have brought further pressure to bear on bureaucrats who had put aside their engineer hats in favor of their manager ones.
But now I'm not so sure. Only nine months ago the Deepwater Horizon, a super-expensive, pride of American technology oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 workers and creating the worst environmental disaster in history. There too engineers put aside ethics in favor of expediency and the bottom line.
As Pete Seeger observed in a song so very long ago: "When will they ever learn?"