In TMFW 119, I told the story of the Gemini VI astronauts making "Jingle Bells" the first song transmitted from space. Today is another "music from space" story, but a much sadder one. It relates to the space shuttle Challenger, which blew up shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986. Challenger has recently been in the news because last week marked the 30th anniversary of the loss.
The most famous astronaut on Challenger's final flight was "first teacher in space" Christa McAuliffe, but (of course) there were six other astronauts on the crew as well. One of those was Dr. Ronald McNair, a Mission Specialist for the flight. Dr. McNair was an impressive guy. An African American born in South Carolina in 1950, at age 9 McNair was told that he could not check out books at the still-segregated public library. He refused to leave, and the librarian called his mother and the police. At the urging of the police, the library backed down and gave him his books; the building is now named in his honor.
After his 4th-grade act of civil disobedience, McNair graduated valedictorian of his high school and went on to North Carolina A&T, where he got a degree with high honors in engineering physics. Five years later, he got his Ph.D. in physics from MIT and went to work at a federal research laboratory. Shortly after he started, McNair was one of 10,000 applicants for the NASA shuttle program and one of the 35 chosen. When he flew on Challenger's fourth mission in 1984, he became just the second African American in space (Dr. Guion Bluford was the first, beating McNair by less than six months.)
McNair was an accomplished saxophone player, and during his first space flight he brought along and played the instrument (sadly no flight recordings exist). News of his music-in-orbit intrigued TMFW 25 subject Jean-Michel Jarre, the French avant-garde composer. Jarre was working on his album Rendez-vous, and worked with McNair to compose a track that featured a prominent saxophone element. Jarre intended for McNair to perform and record the saxophone part on his next Challenger flight; it would have been the first piece of original music recorded in space. Jarre hoped to use the video of the recording during live performances of the larger piece. When Challenger exploded shortly after launch, McNair was killed and so was the performance.
After McNair's death, Jarre went ahead and recorded the song (on Earth). The song is titled "Last Rendezvous," with the name "(Ron's Piece)" appended to the end. It is dedicated to the lost Challenger crew. You can hear it here: "Last Rendezvous (Ron's Piece)." It's not for everyone, but knowing the backstory there's a sort of spooky, almost weightless beauty to it.
BONUS FACT: Roger Boisjoly was an engineer for Morton Thiokol, the private firm that designed the solid booster rockets and the O-ring that failed on Challenger. Boisjoly was concerned about the O-ring design and its potential for failure, and in the summer of 1985 he wrote a memo to his bosses warning them about it. The last sentence of his letter was "[i]t is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to dedicate a team to solve the problem with the field joint having the number one priority, then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities." Sadly, the Thiokol bosses took no action and that's precisely what happened. Boisjoly was then shunned by his coworkers and was pushed out of the company. He died in 2012.
BONUS FACT 1.5: Bob Ebeling was another Morton Thiokol engineer who unsuccessfully tried to stop the launch of Challenger. Though it is apparent that he was unlikely to succed, he still lives with a heavy regret that he didn't insist more strenuously. Ebeling told NPR this year "I think that was one of the mistakes that God made...He shouldn't have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I'm gonna ask him, 'Why me. You picked a loser.'" Heartbreaking.
BONUS FACT 2: It will not be for everyone, but here is a great technical overview of the O-rings and how they failed on Challenger. It features an MIT aerospace engineering professor/former astronaut and an MIT professor of polymer science.
BONUS FACT 2.5: The famous, beloved physicist Richard Feynman was part of the Rogers Commission that was formed to study the causes of the Challenger disaster. At a time when NASA was obfuscatory about the O-rings and their knowledge of the risk of failure, Feynman famously demonstrated the effect of cold on the O-ring by dipping it in a glass of ice water (and by implication, he demonstrated how simple it should have been for NASA to understand it, too.) It was a moment of real embarrassment for NASA.
BONUS FACT 3: While assembling the Challenger crew, NASA had some creative intentions. As Sesame Street writer Norman Stiles describes, NASA proposed to the Sesame Street team that Big Bird could go up in the Space Shuttle as a way of sparking kids' interest in space. Carol Spinney (who plays Big Bird) was interested, but logistical issues around fitting an 8-foot-tall bird into a functioning spacecraft ultimately made the plan unworkable. Still intent on a mission focused on childrens education, NASA decided to send a teacher instead. Oof.
BONUS FACT 4: (This one is not about Challenger, but about the loss of the shuttle Columbia.) The author William Langewiesche wrote a story about the Columbia disaster, including what caused it and how it was treated in the aftermath. "Columbia's Last Flight" ran in the November 2003 issue of The Atlantic; you can read the whole thing at that line. It is absolutely fascinating if you like space.
BONUS FACT 5: (This one is not about Challenger or Columbia, but I'm on a roll here.) Last fall, there was a successful Kickstarter campaign to reprint the 1976 NASA Graphic Standards Manual in book form. The manual was issued in January, 1976, when the now-iconic "worm" was a controversial new logo. At NASA's site, you can download the entire 60-page manual, which features guidance on uniforms, letterhead, envelopes, and all manner of NASA business. It's really really cool.
BONUS FACT 5.5: An oft retold story of NASA's initial reaction to the worm logo focuses on NASA administrator James Fletcher. Reviewing the design, Fletcher objected that the two "A"s did not have a "crossbar" line. This was a design choice in part to make the As look like the nose of a rocket (and that's pretty cool). But even after that explanation, Fletcher renewed his objection, and allegedly responded “I just don’t feel we are getting our money’s worth.” I enjoy that.
BONUS FACT 5.75: On the subject of NASA and funny quotes and getting money's worth, first American in space Alan Shepard was allegedly asked by a reporter what went through his mind as he was sitting on top of the modified ballistic missile that would launch him into space. He replied "the fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder." The quote was paraphrased and recycled by Steve Buscemi as he and Bruce Willis waited to blast off (and blow up a meteor with a nuclear weapon!) in the movie Armageddon.