The Ascent of Christa: Technological Hubris and the Challenger Shuttle Disaster


In the January 28, 1986 Challenger shuttle accident, two technologies — aerospace and television — flexed their muscles and revealed their tragic flaws.

The same powerful thrust of fuel and engines that promised to bring glory to NASA’s “Teacher-in-Space” Christa McAuliffe and the other members of the shuttle crew also sealed their fate, leaving them ten miles up, in an inferno, without protection or parachutes.

Similarly, the media blitz that thrust Christa into our lives left our emotions up in the air, raw and exposed to the elements.

Most of us never met Christa or her family. Yet we found ourselves dwelling on the fate of her children and husband, her parents and her Concord, New Hampshire, students. Christa McAuliffe’s death continues to overshadow those of the other six astronauts, just as the shuttle accident eclipsed most of the other news events of 1986.

Of course, our sense of intimacy with Christa was no accident. Realizing that television deals better with personalities than with the abstract idea of “space exploration,” NASA decided to involve us in its next shuttle flight by focusing publicity on a single person, the first civilian, someone like you and me.

Christa was chosen to be our representative, the first extraordinary ordinary person to travel into space. Surely, her TV-game-show-like enthusiasm played a part in her selection. And through the media attention, NASA and the press sent her into an orbit of celebrity. The six other astronauts were kept out of the television picture.

NASA knew that television is unlike any other medium in that it allows millions of people to see and experience the same person or event at the same moment. Yet along with the massive size of its shared arena, television is a close-up medium that fosters intimacy and involvement. With television, millions of us came to —> Read More