After Challenger With the renewed interest about the Challenger accident from the Netflix series, I’ve been asked about what happened afterward. Reflecting on the aftermath of the accident has given me time for introspection.
Everyone knows about the Rogers Commission which determined that a leaking O-ring on one of the boosters was the cause of the loss of Challenger and that the problem could be fixed. One thing that could not be fixed was the loss of so many dear friends and the havoc it wreaked on their families for the rest of their lives.
What about the Astronauts who were part of the crews that were waiting to fly? How did they make the decision to stay or leave? How did my husband and I decide?
Those decisions were very personal. Both of us had flown prior to Challenger – me once and Hoot twice. For us, deciding to stay or leave involved assessing the risk vs. the benefit for our futures, NASA’S, and that of our families. I had been assigned to my “dream” flight – the first dedicated life sciences mission in which I could use all the things I had learned in college and in medicine to advance our knowledge of human adaption to space. Hoot had every reason to assume his future with NASA would be bright.
But what about our children? We took comfort in knowing that if something happened to one of us the other would be there for the kids. We both knew that we had been given amazing and much sought-after opportunities when we were selected to be Astronauts and we felt a responsibility to stay.
However, it was gut-wrenching to have our children see the accident and to be afraid for us. Paul was four at the time and he was very anxious watching the next launch – worried another accident could happen and that his father might be on it (which he wasn’t). When my third launch rolled around, my younger son, Dann, was more perceptive. When I announced I was going into quarantine for my next flight – his little face crumbled and I knew that he understood the risk I was about to take. He was frightened for me despite all my assurances.
Other Astronauts made different decisions for other reasons. For several, their wives didn’t want to go through the stress of watching their husbands face the perils that would always be present for spaceflights. Several of the Astronauts decided it was time to move on – many to other lower-risk jobs at NASA or with the contractors that designed, built, and managed space vehicles.
All of the things that went on after the accident brought a new reality to our lives and changed each of us – and our families – forever.
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