Sunday, January 28, 2007

Anniversary of the Challenger Accident

Twenty-one years ago, on January 28, 1986, NASA mission STS-51-L ended in disaster, when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke up 73 seconds after launch.

The crew consisted of Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka; teacher Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis; Mission Specialist, Judith Resnik, PhD; Pilot Michael J. Smith, Commander Dick Scobee, and Mission Specialist Ron McNair, PhD. All of their lives were cut too short.

Since this blog is about women in science, I'd like to say a little more about Judith Resnik. Resnik received her doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland in 1977. She worked as a design engineer at RCA on NASA-related projects, as a senior systems engineer with Xerox and as a biomedical engineer at the National Institutes of Health.

She said that she never hesitated to pursue an engineering career despite the few number of women in the field. "I was always good in math and science, and I liked it. Maybe I liked it because I was good in it." (Challenger Center Profile)
In January 1978 she was selected for the astronaut program and joined NASA. Her first mission was on the initial voyage of the space shuttle Discovery in 1984, making her the second American woman in space*. The Challenger was her second mission.

Senator (and former astronaut) John Glenn noted at her memorial service that she died doing what she loved:
Now let me speak of happiness. It has been my observation that the happiest of people, the vibrant doers of the world are almost always those who are using - who are putting into play, calling upon, depending upon-the greatest number of their God-given talents and capabilities. For them, curiosity is a way of life, and the quest for knowledge and the new is insatiable and exhilarating.

But it becomes many-fold more meaningful when put to use for a higher purpose, for something bigger than self, for a goal that calls on those individuals to dictate themselves to accomplishment for the betterment of our nation, and indeed for all mankind. The individual's safety takes second place to that curiosity, that quest, that daring and dedication with the highest of purpose.

Judy Resnik, whom we both honor and memorialize here today, was such a person in every sense of those words. I know that from talking to her in my office after her first flight. She and her fellow crew members knew that exultation of accomplishment, the triumph of spirit that came from dedication to a purpose larger than themselves. They would never have joined those tepid and vacuous souls whose only goal is self-interest and safety, and neither can we.
Today the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) confers the Judith A. Resnik Award "to recognize outstanding contributions to space engineering" in her honor.

Additional Reading

* The first American woman in space was Sally Ride, PhD, who was a Mission Specialist on Challenger's 1983 voyage.

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