Saturday, May 9, 2009

Shuttle Challenger Explodes

On January 28th, 1986, NASA launched the shuttle Challenger, off of the coast of Florida. Within 72 seconds of lift-off, the shuttle exploded above the Atlantic, littering the water with debris from the disaster. All seven of the people on board the shuttle were killed in the explosion.

In the Los Angeles Times, their main article about the explosion of the aircraft was about the debris that stemmed from the disaster. The main source of the article was the United Press, and it was not very long. It discussed the debris that they had found so far in the ocean, and the fact that there were no conclusions that were drawn yet about what could have gone wrong with the spacecraft. It also warned the public to leave the debris alone, and let the experts deal with it. The quotes in the article were from official members of NASA and the Kennedy Space Center, as well as from a member of the Coast Guard.

The New York Times took a different approach. This paper chose to outline the many things that could have caused the explosion in the spacecraft. Not only do they outline all of the various physical problems that could have gone wrong, but they also describe the chemicals inside the chamber on the side of the shuttle, and what malfunctions could have caused the liquid nitrogen and the liquid oxygen to mix and create a bomb. The writer then goes on to suggest sabotage by a worker, and explains the security regarding the rocket. The source of this article was not stated, and there were absolutely no quotes in the entire article. With so much scientific information, it seems that there should have been more concrete sources, but it was just basically lacking proof that any of the concepts were true. 

However, the Washington Post used a very credible source - NASA itself. The Post chose to publish an article that was the direct statement that the assistant administrator made regarding the explosion. This seems, to me, to be the best way to handle the situation. The other two articles were based on speculation, but this was based on all of the facts available to the public, and the press, at the time, straight from the mouth of the NASA administrator. It seems impossible to have found a more constructive source, or a better way to frame the story.

In the 1980’s, literary writing was mixing with journalism to form the way of entertaining the reader along with informing them. Although this had started a great number of years before, writers were still using this as a way of trying to gain readership. I think that the New York Times was attempting to use this approach, to entertain the reader with all of the many things that could have happened. They used this speculation to appeal to those reading the article because they did not have many concrete facts to use. The same cannot be said for the other articles though.

 This story could be compared with the explosion of the shuttle Columbia back in February of 2003. Although the mission had already been completed, and the explosion occurred during re-entry into the atmosphere, the coverage was very similar to that of the shuttle Challenger. Seven people lost their lives, and the debris was littered across the land. Speculation occured then as well, until they pinpointed what it was that had caused the explosion and the break-up of the vessel.

NASA Hunts Debris, Tells Beachcombers 'Hands Off' 

Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File); Jan 29, 1986; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Los Angeles Times (1881 - 1986) pg. 1

How Could It Happen? Fuel Tank Leak Feared 


New York Times (1857-Current file); Jan 29, 1986; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005) pg. A1

NASA Official's Statement 

The Washington Post  (1974-Current file); Jan 29, 1986; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post (1877 - 1992) pg. A6

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