"The future is not free: the story of all human progress is one of a struggle against all odds. We learned again that this America…was built on heroism and noble sacrifice. It was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty, who gave more than was expected or required and who gave it little thought of worldly reward."
- President Ronald Reagan, January 31, 1986
On January 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger was set to launch on STS-51-L, a mission to observe and track Halley’s Comet. Additionally, Christa McAuliffe, one of the mission’s astronauts and part of the Teacher in Space program, was going to present various lessons from space. Tragically, that did not happen—73 seconds after Challenger launched, the shuttle disintegrated, killing all seven crew members.
This event was watched by the whole world and, as the footage of the disaster played out, it shook all who saw it. This was most heavily felt in space community and even in realm of the cultural arts. Particularly, famed science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and astronaut Sally K. Ride had their own respective responses to this tragedy, which can be found in the National Air and Space Museum Archives.
Arthur C. Clarke and Challenger
Throughout Arthur C. Clarke’s career, he wrote numerous works about the beauty and infinite possibilities that space travel would offer humanity. In both his science fiction (e.g. Rendezvous with Rama, Fountains of Paradise) and his science non-fiction (e.g. Interplanetary Flight) Clarke showcased to the masses the wonders of space travel. Besides his writing, Clarke supported numerous organizations that promoted the development of space travel from International Space University (ISU) to the Planetary Society (founded by one of his frequent correspondents, Carl Sagan) to the National Space Institute (later renamed as the National Space Society, originally founded by rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun). In addition, Clarke was a guest commenter on news programs for all the Apollo missions to the Moon, which showed how invested he was in the American space program.
The Challenger disaster was reflected in the correspondence Clarke received in early 1986. In one letter, author Jeff Greenwald tells Clarke how this disaster has deeply affected America, but offers a glimmer of hope that despite the tragedy there is still support for space travel.
In the realm of music and film, Clarke received letters from two people he had come to known over the past few years. In a series of letters in early January 1986, French electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre discussed that his upcoming concert in Houston, Texas, was going to have Ronald "Ron" McNair, one of the Challenger astronauts, play the saxophone while in space for Jarre’s song “Rendez-Vous VI.”
However, after the Challenger disaster occurred, Jarre sent another later to Clarke proclaiming that his Houston concert, titled Rendez-vous Houston, would now become a memorial for the Challenger astronauts.
Peter Hyams, a film director, became acquainted with Arthur C. Clarke during the early 1980s, as Hyams was chosen to direct 2010, the sequel film to 2001: A Space Odyssey. His letter to Clarke showcases his anguish over the disaster of Challenger, yet also highlights how the selection of the schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, perfectly encapsulates Clarke’s vision that space travel illuminates the best of humanity.
Sally K. Ride and Challenger
While Arthur C. Clarke was shocked by the tragic event of the destruction of Challenger, he was not involved with NASA and its astronaut program. Sally K. Ride, however, was heavily connected with NASA and would play an important role in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.
In 1983, Sally Ride made history to become the first American woman in space. A year later, she went up again. Both times Sally Ride went into space, she and her respective crews travelled on the Challenger shuttle. When Challenger was destroyed in 1986, Ride was training for her third shuttle mission. Soon she was selected to be a part of the accident investigation team, which became the Rogers Commission, to investigate the causes of the disaster.
Ride’s involvement in the investigation of the causes of the Challenger disaster were highly praised. NASA’s administrator at the time, James C. Fletcher, was quite pleased with Ride’s and the Commission’s findings as seen in this letter to Ride.
Arthur C. Clarke and Sally K. Ride were both enthusiastic about the wonders of spaceflight. Both were authors of written works and promoters of science. Yet, one was an astronaut who had been to space, while the other was just a writer of science fiction. Despite this difference, both Clarke and Ride were deeply affected by the tragedy of Challenger and worked to make sure the lives of those seven astronauts and the dream of spaceflight for all humanity would never be forgotten.
The Sally K. Ride Papers and the Arthur C. Clarke Collection of Sri Lanka are available to all as digital National Air and Space Museum Archives collections on the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives.