Each generation has at least one event that marks it forever.
People never forget where they were when they heard that President Kennedy was shot, or when they first learned of the 9/11 attacks.
One of those pivotal historical events was the Challenger disaster in 1986.
I was only 4 years old and don’t remember it at all, but I have heard the stories of family and friends of the horror of watching the space shuttle lift off and only 73 seconds into the launch, explode and disintegrate.
Many American schoolchildren witnessed the horrific tragedy in real time.
Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher, was on the Challenger as the first civilian to travel into outer space, and so the launch was being broadcast into thousands of American classrooms that day for the students to watch.
What was intended to be a spectacle of scientific progress and brave new American frontiers in space turned into a heartbreaking catastrophe in an instant.
Seven astronauts died in the incident, and seeing America’s best and brightest go up in flames on national television had Americans asking for answers.
President Reagan created the Rogers Commission to investigate the tragedy. Its members included familiar names from the space program such as Sally Ride, Chuck Yeager, and Neil Armstrong, as well as Boeing engineers, a Nobel prize winner in physics, a CIA aerial surveillance expert, and several Air Force generals.
The sad findings were that the Challenger disaster was completely preventable.
The scientific proximate cause was the malfunction of something called the o-rings that connected parts of the spacecraft, which failed in the cold temperatures of the launch. The failure of the o-rings led to pressurized hot gasses escaping, which then ignited and caused the explosion.
But the literal scientific explanation did not answer the bigger question: why did this happen?