The NASA family lost seven of its own on the morning of January 28, 1986, when a booster engine failed, causing the Shuttle Challenger to break apart just 73 seconds after launch.

In this photo from January 9, 1986, the Challenger crew takes a break during countdown training at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Left to right are Teacher-in-Space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and astronauts Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist.

The tragedies of Apollo 1 (January 27, 1967) and Columbia (February 1, 2003) are all situated so closely together, that this is the week to remember the astronauts who have truly sacrificed everything for the better of mankind, taking risks for all of us to gather more information and learn, improving our knowledge. 

The Challenger accident had a profound impact on tens of thousands of people. There are a handful of world events that can bring back memories and feelings. People know exactly where they were, what they were doing when they learned about the explosion;  me included. I was 11 years old, a school boy in Switzerland, attending 5th grade. Due to the time difference between the East Coast and Switzerland I did not learn of this incident until the following day. And what happened after I heard and saw the news was what really started my interesting in space exploration: 

See, up until that point I had little interest in technology and science. Granted, I grew up in a very small town in the Swiss mountains. Technology in 1986 there wasn't anything like it is today. Technology to me was my bicycle (which I was only allowed to ride close to the house or when my mom and I went on a bike-ride). It was a beautiful blue race bike with yellow conventional drop handlebars and a yellow seat. This was all the technology I needed at that age.

I was also not interested in science. Science to me was putting the right kind of wax on my skies to go faster downhill. All other science wasn't important to me. 

Needless to say, I had little understanding and knowledge of space exploration. Sure, I watched the original Star Trek, Flash Gordon and Captain Future on TV but never really questioned how accurate these shows were. I had no reason to. 

Around 1986
That all changed in January of 1986. A spaceship had just exploded during launch and it killed its crew onboard. I was fascinated. Don't get me wrong - I was sad about this as much as I was fascinated. But  yes, I was fascinated that we could built such a machine and yet it would fail on us. What did go wrong?

I started a school newspaper which solely focused on the topic of "What happened with Challenger?". Remember, it was 1986 and there were no computers (in my home-town... at least not that I knew of!) and my family did not even have a typewriter at home. So I spent time with my friend Marco Carnot, whose parents had a typewriter. An old-school typewriter, which meant that any mistake was visible and could only be corrected by "Whiteout". 

It took forever to write a page. And it took about as long to gather the information. Again, in 1986 there was no Google Search with instant gratification of need and wanted information. There were newspapers and magazines, and the 7:30 PM News on the Swiss TV Channel 01. I remember I even wrote a letter to NASA asking for information; my letter was in German. Why? Because I was 11 years old and only spoke Swiss German, German and Romanisch. I probably did not even put enough postage on the letter to NASA. I don't even remember where I got the NASA address from. -- I do remember that I never got a response. Perhaps I did not tell them my return address. I don't know. 

One thing was clear. Between Edition 1 and Edition 2 of my newspaper were weeks. That's how long it took for me to find other newspapers, which had different and more information than our local paper. And then it took days to copy what they wrote (boy, I was doing some major plagiarism there) into my newspaper edition, cut the pictures out, do the editorial lay-out and make photocopies for all 20 or so students. By the time my 2nd and 3rd editions were out, the information in them were already outdated by weeks. I did not care - I wanted to learn and share as much information about this tragic event as I could (hey, I realize I might have actually invented Social Media there!!!). 

But the process of gathering information about the Space Shuttle, about the astronauts, about what went wrong, what did happen and what would happen in the future, really got me interested in this space exploration topic. So much that I started to collect space themed items and toys. And there were not that many around in my part of Switzerland. 

A couple years later my mom went to visit Florida and decided to also see the Kennedy Space Center. I did not get to go but I remember how she told me she would get me something good from there. And she sure did; she got me a few patches. Apollo 11, a Challenger patch, a Columbia patch and they became my most valuable possessions for years. In fact, they found their way onto a jean-jacket of mine and I wore it proudly. They were also with me when for our NASA SDO (Atlas V) launch and my first Space Shuttle launch (STS-133). 

I got books about space, about our solar system, about rockets. I had great space themed Lego models and I loved science fiction now too. I was much more interested in technology - because I was so touched by Challenger and learned so much through that event, ultimately triggering a fascination which would continue until today. 

When I was 12 or 13 years old, I said that someday I would work on a space mission. Sure I was hoping to maybe be an astronaut, but I did not put too much hope into that dream. After all, I was still in the Swiss mountains and while they are tall and get you closer to Space, they also don't provide great opportunities for becoming a fly-boy. 

This is how my interest in space exploration came about. My wish to work on a NASA mission would not happen until 2002 when I started working at Stanford University on the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager instrument as part of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. But boy, was that amazing to be part of a NASA mission! That September in 2002 I visited NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for the first time and I felt very accomplished. 

So what does Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia and NASA have to do with our latest adventure, flying these aerial machines? 

Over the past 50 years NASA missions have given the world extraordinary new knowledge. Not only about our own Planet and Universe, but the NASA missions have challenged our very own thinking and what we think we know. In order to accomplish many of the missions, new technologies had to be invented. And many of those NASA-originated technologies have gotten adapted by the private industry for use by consumers like you and I - this is called NASA-Spinoff Technology. NASA does not manufacture, market or sell commercial products - but many commercial products are derived from NASA invented technologies. 

I will only list a few here that have made flying these aerial platforms and getting the images and video possible. 

- Image Sensors Enhance Camera Technology

- Video Image Stabilization and Registration 

- Control Algorithms to Charge Batteries Faster

- Software Programs Derive Measurements from Photographs 

- Rocket engine development (to get GPS satellites into space)

- GPS Satellite development (to get safety features like "Return to Home" on DJI products

- GPS Software Packages Delivering Positioning Solutions

- UAV Technology Advances 

There are many more NASA Spinoff technologies making our lives better and better every day. From Health and Medicine, Transportation, Public Safety, Consumer Goods, Environmental Resources to Computer Technology. 

And most importantly, what NASA does, it lets you dream of a better future, it inspires you to work harder, smarter to bring that future to the present. No other Government Agency does it so well, so effectively, and with so much cool stuff and benefits. 

The crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia are and will be forever part of our progress. I truly believe they have not passed in vain - while their incidents all could have been avoided, it's hindsight that tells us that. From every incident a new technology was invented and incorporated. And for that our lives have become better and richer, with more knowledge, understanding and potential. 

More information about NASA Spinoff Technology. 


01/28/2014 12:47pm

Great post Romeo! I was student teaching when the Challenger explosion happened.

Mindy Hertzon
01/28/2014 1:06pm

Wonderful insight on how space shaped your future. Like you, I will never forget those we lost. ❤️

04/21/2014 2:54pm

Wow. Great read. I love how it is all tied in to our small-format aerial photography now. Thanks. ~r


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