The Challenger explosion, ten years ago next month, was the most traumatic setback to the US space program to date. Here, a Danish professor of literature and space-travel enthusiast tries to put it in context. Jensen begins with a detailed account of the fatal launch, right up to the moment that will never be forgotten by anybody who saw the endless TV replay: the space shuttle exploding shortly after liftoff, killing seven astronauts and passengers. After this tragic scene, he devotes a chapter to summarizing the worldwide reactions, then cuts back in time, to the very earliest days of the space program. Using mostly secondary sources, Jensen explains that, from the start, there were conflicts between the scientific and political arms of NASA. But during the Apollo missions, the space program was held together by the common goal of putting an American on the moon. After Apollo, everything changed for NASA. Nixon determinedly cut the heart out of its budget, forcing it to abandon plans for space stations and a manned Mars mission and to adopt a single multipurpose vehicle: the shuttle. Even more than previous space vehicles, the shuttle was a combination of brilliant technical achievement and sheer Rube Goldberg; as Challenger was to prove, some of the off-the- shelf components of which NASA was so proud were not up to the job. Jensen concludes with a summary of the technical postmortems, including a look at whether some of the crew might have survived the explosion, only to die when the craft fell into the waters off Florida. In the end, he places much of the blame for the disaster on a NASA management system that had forgotten the values that made Apollo work: personal integrity, common sense, and a commitment to excellence. Not only a perceptive analysis of the causes of the Challenger disaster, but a fine overview of the American space program.
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