By Judge Brian Addington, Kingsport
On Monday night, January 27, 1986, I got home late from college. Since I commuted, I decided to either take Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes or Tuesday-Thursday classes. That semester it was the former, so I had Tuesday off. I was tired from a long day of schoolwork, but I decided to call a friend to see if he wanted to do something the next day. I cannot remember exactly what we agreed to do, but part of it included going to the local Piggly Wiggly. My friend worked there, and it might have been he was picking up his check, but I cannot remember the precise reason because of what happened that next day.
It was freezing on Tuesday, and snow flurries were blowing across the Piggly Wiggly parking lot as I sat in my friend’s truck listening to the radio. Suddenly the radio went to a special report: The space shuttle Challenger had exploded after lift-off from Cape Canaveral. When my friend got back to the truck, I told him the news and that we needed to get back to my house immediately to watch CNN (one of the only luxuries I had during my high school and early college years was access to cable television).
We drove back to my house and turned on CNN and, like almost everyone else that day, tried to figure out what caused the disaster while sympathizing with the family and friends of the astronauts who died. I was really interested in that particular launch and had watched Christa McAuliffe, winner of the Teacher in Space Project, as she underwent training for the flight. I had thought back then “how cool” it was that a regular citizen won the opportunity to go to space.
An investigation into the accident led to the conclusion that o-rings on the right-side solid rocket booster failed due to the cold weather, allowing flames to escape and causing an explosion. NASA had never launched a space shuttle at such a cold temperatures. The o-ring producer, Thiokol, warned NASA the night before the accident of possible problems with the o-rings due to the low temperatures. NASA decided to launch anyway.
It is a reminder to us all that we should treat any issue seriously when it comes to safety. Yes, there are deadlines, and yes, we all need to get our work done, but not at the expense of safety.
As a workers’ compensation judge, I was curious and recently looked into what compensation, if any, was paid to the families of those killed: Francis Scobee, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Judith Resnick and Michael Smith. It appears all reached settlements with the government and contractors in the years following the accident, though at least three of the settlement agreements were sealed.
A few thoughts from the accident resonate with me to this day:
- This is one of the events in life that I remember where I was when I heard the news.
- The sadness and confusion on the face of Christa McAuliffe’s father, who watched the accident from grandstands at Cape Canaveral, touched me deeply.
- President Reagan gave a strong showing of respect to the families and the crew in his address to the nation the night of the tragedy and the memorial service days later.
At the finish of President Reagan’s television tribute to the crew, he noted their courage and explained to schoolchildren that exploration sometimes comes with sacrifice. As he finished, he quoted from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”