Lessons Linger 25 Years After Challenger Tragedy The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 "was a trauma to the nation's psyche," says Sen. Bill Nelson, a former astronaut. But NASA and the American public have learned a few things about space science since then.
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Lessons Linger 25 Years After Challenger Tragedy

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Lessons Linger 25 Years After Challenger Tragedy

Lessons Linger 25 Years After Challenger Tragedy

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


Millions of Americans remember a televised image that was broadcast over and over again, 25 years ago this week.

MONTAGNE: About a minute after liftoff on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blew apart, killing all aboard, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to become an astronaut. NPR's Joe Palca reports on how the tragedy affected this country and American attitudes towards science.

JOE PALCA: On January 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to deliver his State of the Union speech, but Challenger changed those plans.

INSKEEP: Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

PALCA: President Reagan expressed in words what many people were feeling that day.

INSKEEP: It was a huge shock to the American people, because the space shuttle had come to represent our entire technological prowess.

PALCA: That's Senator Bill Nelson from Florida. At the time, he was congressman Bill Nelson. He was also astronaut Bill Nelson. His mission aboard the space shuttle Columbia had ended just 10 days earlier. Nelson says it was shocking enough just to think about what happened to Challenger.

INSKEEP: And when people suddenly saw on their television screens, that was played over and over, the close-up shot of those solid rocket boosters going off in different directions about 10 miles high in the Florida sky - I mean, this was a trauma to the nation's psyche.

PALCA: The country had to revisit that trauma 17 years later.

INSKEEP: This day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country.

PALCA: The day was February 1, 2003. This time, it was President George W. Bush trying to help the country deal with tragedy in space.

INSKEEP: At 9 o'clock this morning, mission control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia.

PALCA: There were no iconic pictures from the Columbia accident. It was just a vapor trail streaking across the sky, and some close-ups of bits of debris. But shocking as it was, the second loss of a space shuttle didn't hit the country in the gut the way the first one did. Jon Miller thinks he knows the reason for that. Miller is at the University of Michigan, where he studies public attitudes towards science.

INSKEEP: The first time it blew up, it was such a shock because most people thought it would never, ever happen. But once you get the idea that spacecraft sometimes have catastrophic events, then it becomes less of a shock.

INSKEEP: That's why the Challenger destruction seemed to affect day-to-day Americans a lot more than did Columbia years later.

PALCA: Bruce Lewenstein thinks the long-term impact of Challenger may be in how it changed the way Americans view science. Lewenstein is a professor of science communication at Cornell University. He says NASA had always been the good-news agency, freely sharing science news with journalists. But after Challenger, everyone at the agency clammed up - including scientists.

INSKEEP: People had this image that science didn't operate that way. But in fact, modern science, big science, does operate that way, and Challenger was one of the ways we discovered that - and perhaps one of the most dramatic ways we discovered that.

PALCA: Lewenstein says there was a positive legacy for NASA from the Challenger accident. When the Columbia accident occurred, the space agency certainly seemed to be more open about what was going on, a good move from a public relations perspective.

INSKEEP: They were more open with information. They were more careful to try to get different perspectives out there. They were more careful to try to make information available.

PALCA: Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can find a timeline of the milestones in the American space program at our website, NPR.org/science.

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