When discussing the Challenger tragedy and what led to the events of January 28, 1986, one must recognize that the media hype played a part in determining whether or not the launch would occur. The Challenger mission was the first mission to send a teacher into space. Christa McAuliffe was chosen from educators across the United States as the first teacher to be trained by NASA and sent on a space shuttle mission.
She was meant to conduct classroom activities from the space shuttle. The decisions surrounding sending a teacher into space, as well as the process to choose the teacher, generated tremendous publicity and media attention for NASA. Many hailed it as a great public relations move at a time when public interest in NASA was fading. The ability to send a space shuttle into orbit had become common-place and routine in the eyes of many, despite the obvious dangers it entailed for the crew.
As the space shuttle prepared to be launched, there were obvious safety considerations involved. However, the media storm that surrounded the first “Teacher in Space” helped propel the launch forward and negate the concerns of some NASA employees. Despite the pre-launch teleconference held by some employees, during which the legitimate fears concerning the safety of the launch and the weather was discussed, NASA decided to go forth with the launch. The results were deadly: all seven members of the crew were killed shortly after the shuttle launch. The television repeatedly showed images of the explosion of the shuttle.
However, it must also be noted that NASA had counted upon the launch of the shuttle to re-invigorate the fading image it had in the public consciousness. The shuttle launch and tragedy occurred on the day of the State of the Union Address by President Ronald Reagan. Reagan needed to redo his speech during the day and change his remarks. The tragedy prompted the President of the United States to redo the most important speech of the year. One must question how much President Reagan was going to boast about the success of the first teacher in space during the speech. He was forced to change it that day to reflect the tragedy endured by the nation and by NASA (Martin & Schizinger, 2014, p. 100).
If the media hype had not been as extensive prior to the shuttle launch, it may have been easier for NASA to delay the launch. However, NASA clearly publicized that they were sending a teacher into space. They had a national search to find the “perfect” educator to launch as the first teacher into space. They also had a backup teacher in case McAuliffe could not fulfill her duties. Furthermore, they stated that they wanted to make this a regular part of their space shuttle missions. They believed that this would help to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies among studies. This was a national publicity campaign to help indicate that NASA would be part of the solution with regards to education in this country. This would help to stop the idea that NASA should be turned over to a regular airline, a clear step downward for the space agency (Martin & Schizinger, 2014, p. 96).
If NASA had not launched such an impressive media campaign with regards to Christa McAuliffe as the first educator in space, NASA may not have been so desperate to launch the Challenger shuttle. Christa McAuliffe had become a role model quickly in the media and in schools. She was known for her inspirational comments for students and indeed, for all Americans. She appeared as the perfect role model and NASA quickly focused on this with the media. However, because of this, tragedy ensued. The desire to put the first teacher in space, and also to have her in space for the State of the Union Address, likely helped NASA to overlook serious concerns with the shuttle’s safety.
- Martin, M. & Schizinger, R. (2015). Ethics in engineering, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.