This is one of those synchronicities between teaching and the information circulating around the web that I love so much. Jump-started by viewing R.E.M.’s video of their song "Man on the Moon" in class, we were talking about how the images of Newton and Darwin in the lyrics might resonate with questions of skepticism, of being kept off balance about judging whether something you are witnessing is real or not, about questions of evidence in coming to know the truth, and how one responds to others who question that truth.
We spent a fair amount of time looking at the question of skepticism about whether the U.S. landed a man on the moon, and what the dynamics might be of belief or unbelief about "what happened." And then when I log onto the web after class there’s this great piece on "7 Myths About the Challenger Shuttle Disaster," by James Oberg, who was a Mission Control operator and orbital designer at NASA and is now a space analyst for NBC. Oberg opens with a paragraph purporting to be an accurate recounting of the Challenger disaster events, and then does a fascinating job in a short amount of space in relating how the seven myths that inform our conventional wisdom about this historical episode emerged. As Oberg explains of this opening paragraph:
At least, that seems to be how many people remember it, in whole or in part. That’s how the story of the Challenger is often retold, in oral tradition and broadcast news, in public speeches and in private conversations and all around the Internet. But spaceflight historians believe that each element of the opening paragraph is factually untrue or at best extremely dubious. They are myths, undeserving of popular belief and unworthy of being repeated at every anniversary of the disaster.
Most poignant to me is the assumption that the astronauts died immediately. Oberg states that "Official NASA commemorations of ‘Challenger’s 73-second flight’ subtly deflect attention from what was happen[ing] in the almost three minutes of flight (and life) remaining AFTER the breakup." I was also intrigued by his explanation of how there was no "explosion," although probably most of us would use that word and feel certain of the evidence of our own eyes.
Reaching into divergent memories of "what happened" with Challenger has the potential to reveal a great deal about ideas about science and culture, as Oberg demonstrates. I’m glad he chose the word "myth," even though he probably means it to be a synonym for lie or falsehood. There are also other understandings of myths – that they are deeply resonant stories that explain our deepest questions about the world around us (even when not deemed to be 'accurate') – and these 7 mythic elaborations of the Challenger event can also be thought of in this way (it's interesting that 7 itself is a mythic number!). Richard Slotkin, in Gunfighter Nation, has an interesting take on the nature of myths: he describes them as "stories drawn from a society's history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society's ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness – with all the complexities and contradictions that consciousness may contain." Thinking not only about why these seven points deviate from a more realistic account of the event, but what they themselves signify as symbolic evocations of the complexities and contradictions of our society’s ideology and moral consciousness about science and technology would be very revealing.
For more: The Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science at Case Western University has a thought-provoking presentation on "Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger Disaster" (Boisjoly was a Morton Thiokol engineer who argued against launching the Challenger under the prevailing temperature conditions).
If you step into the way-back machine, you’ll discover there was a moon hoax of 1835, when the New York Sun published pictures of what it claimed to be an inhabited moon, as discovered by Sir John Herschel through the telescope.
Image: The cover image from The First Lunar Landing as Told by the Astronauts: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/ap11ann/FirstLunarLanding/cover.html