Geek Trivia: Rising from the ashes

What notable item of symbolic, nonscientific cargo survived the Challenger disaster completely unscathed?

Twenty years ago this week, one of the gravest moments in the history of the American space program came to pass. On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded a mere 73 seconds after liftoff. In many ways, the disaster crippled the shuttle program as it had only just begun and issued a painful lesson about the risks of spaceflight—and the bravery of every astronaut—that echoes still today.

While the loss of the Challenger qualified as a tragedy by any measure, among the tally of fatal aerospace disasters, Challenger left perhaps the most indelible mark on the history of human space exploration. Christa McAuliffe earned this mission particular renown, having garnered a spot among Challenger's seven-member crew as the first winner of NASA's Teacher in Space program.

As such, classrooms all over the world tuned in to watch as the first civilian schoolteacher began her tenure as an orbital instructor. When Challenger exploded, it was this audience of schoolchildren that witnessed the disaster on live broadcast.

In consequence, this left an entire nation—perhaps the entire Western world—of parents and teachers to explain the suddenly inescapable realities of risk, mortality, bravery, and sacrifice.

Perhaps fittingly, Challenger's demise occurred on the scheduled date of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan's annual State of the Union address. Postponing that speech by a week, Reagan instead addressed the Challenger disaster before his entire country.

The president compared the Challenger crew to Sir Francis Drake, who died at sea—aboard ship while on mission—precisely 390 years before. He closed the address by notably quoting the poem "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., pronouncing that the Challenger crew had "'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

In the days and years that followed the Challenger disaster, the ship and its crew quickly became symbols of the risks and rewards of scientific inquiry and the exploration of space. Even the wreckage of the Challenger itself received symbolic honors, with the remains of the craft and its cargo entombed within a decommissioned missile silo at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Actually, it wasn't the entire cargo. In fact, selected items from the Challenger accident have served for various research, security, and commemorative purposes.

However, one notably nonscientific cargo item survived the Challenger disaster almost completely unscathed—and went on to have its own unique symbolic career.


What notable item of nonscientific cargo survived the Challenger disaster, going on to have its own unique, symbolic career?

An American flag on loan from Boy Scout Troop 514 from Monument, CO was onboard the Challenger when it broke apart, and salvage efforts recovered it from the Atlantic Ocean completely intact inside its sealed plastic container.

Now known as the Challenger Flag, it has enjoyed some storied exploits since its discovery during the Challenger wreckage recovery efforts. The Challenger Flag found its way into the mission flight kit thanks to Troop 514's scoutmaster, Major William Tolbert, an officer attached to the United States Air Force Space Command.

Prior to its NASA submission, Tolbert also managed to have the flag flown above the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 25, 1985. Though explosion all but destroyed the flag's commemorative case and a group of silver medallions along with the Challenger, the flag itself survived to fly at many notable events and locations.

(Technically, Challenger itself did not explode—rather, extreme g-forces caused by a severe malfunction in one of the spacecraft's solid rocket boosters tore it apart. As such, the disaster wrought surprisingly little fire damage on the cargo.)

NASA returned the flag to Troop 514 in late 1986, but it did not remain with them long. In early 1987, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Warren Burger designated the Challenger Flag as the official flag of the U.S. Constitution's Bicentennial celebrations. On Sept. 17, 1987, the Challenger Flag served as a featured part of the Constitutional Parade in Philadelphia, and the following day it flew once again above the U.S. Capitol.

The Challenger Flag then went into semi-retirement for the next 15 years, serving only as an honored artifact in Colorado Boy Scout Eagle Court ceremonies. Then, in 2002, the troop loaned the flag to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for display in Salt Lake City while the city hosted the Winter Olympic Games.

Today, the Challenger Flag again resides in the possession of Troop 514, awaiting its next call to duty—and its next entry into the annals of Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the January 11 edition of Geek Trivia, "A lasting impact." TechRepublic member Tyler.poland called me out for an overabundance of confidence in Japanese space probe engineering.

"You state that Japan's Hayabusa probe managed to draw samples from the asteroid 25143 Itokawa. Perhaps it is a little premature to make this statement since the JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency] doesn't know [itself] yet if this is the case. Please see [this article, which states,] 'Now, scientists have to wait for three more years to see whether the probe has gathered soil examples of the asteroid.'"

My intent was to contrast the difference in design and mission profile between JAXA's Hayabusa and NASA's Deep Impact, but as usual, I failed miserably in communicating the finer points of my argument. Thanks for keeping me on the straight and narrow, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.