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
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
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 SYMBOLIC, NONSCIENTIFIC CARGO SURVIVED
THE CHALLENGER DISASTER COMPLETELY UNSCATHED?
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
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.