Sunday, January 29, 2006

"Major Malfunction"

We've seen a lot of retrospectives this week about the space shuttle Challenger disaster 20 years ago. I have only two things to add:

On the day of the disaster, I happened to be sick, and was home from high school. My mother suddenly had to leave (I think one of my siblings had gotten in trouble at school, but I can't actually remember the reason why), so she asked me to babysit for my toddler sister, who was napping anyway.

I recall I was watching TV, and news anchor John Palmer suddenly broke in. He announced that there were reports of a "major malfunction" on the space shuttle Challenger, which he said he was told would be visible on the videotape. From his later reaction, it was clear that he hadn't yet seen the tape.

They ran the film, and given the description of the incident as a "major malfunction" and "visible" I expected something we could see, but not overly dramatic. I kept thinking we would see a trail of smoke coming from the hull of the Challenger. The dramatic explosion that took place made the understatement of "major malfunction" seem like a joke.

The camera cut back to Palmer. He was not looking directly at the camera ... he was instead staring at something (presumably a monitor) a little off to the side. His mouth was slightly open, and there was an awkward second of silence during which he clearly did not know what to say. All he had before him was a script with the phrases "major malfunction," "visible explosion," and "teacher in space," and a videotape that demonstrated the banality of his copy. He stammered for a moment, obviously shaken, and got his footing.

I know that for most people the phrase "major malfunction" recalls a line from Full Metal Jacket, but for me it has a sense that contains an element of ironic understatement.

Incidentally, my sister (not the one from the blog Safari So Goody -- a different one) had woken up by that point. We had conversation a few years back wherein she asked about a memory she had from her childhood where a "spaceship blew up" on the news. The Challenger disaster is apparently one of her earliest memories, though recollected through the filter of a toddler's perceptions.


  1. I remember sitting in my high school chemistry class when it happened. I don't know if we already had the TVs on to watch the launch or not. I can still see the images.

  2. Were you really watching as it happened? I too vividly recalled watching in real time, but later, talking to teachers and some other clearer-headed class-mates (others had my memory too), we concluded it wasn't so. See also

  3. I didn't really see it as it happened. NBC wasn't carrying the launch live. What I saw was a few minutes later when the news bulletin broke into regular programming. My most vivid memory of it, then, is not the event itself, but John Palmer's stunned (non)reaction to it.

  4. Anonymous8:24 PM

    Interesting reflections. I was a senior in 1986 attending Concord High School, the school where Mrs. McAuliffe taught. We were tired of having media all over our school and of the repeated launch delays. The general consensus was "launch the thing just get it over with". Many of us felt very guilty. I remember sitting in the cafeteria during the launch, watching the explosion and realizing instantly it was over for those astronauts.

    I will never forget a teacher's comment from behind me: "Was that supposed to happen?" I could only shake my head and reply "No." Right around that time the NASA information officer doing the commentary uttered the words "obviously a major malfunction" which was an understatement of the highest (lowest?) order.

    Watching the SRBs scissor back and forth through the air before the RSO destroyed them is also burned into my memory.

    One last thing: All those of you who believe in the fake transcript of the crew's final moments need to do some research. Don't sully the memories of those 7 intrepid individuals by fueling the fire.

    Nick, CHS class of 1986