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  • Remembering the Shuttle, Forgetting the Loom: Interpreting the Challenger Disaster
  • Ann Larabee

As in a play, the nation rises again Reborn of grief and ready to seek the stars; Remembering the shuttle, forgetting the loom.

Howard Nemerov On an Occasion of National Mourning


In 1993, in the wake of the World Trade Center bombing, a made-for-TV American movie called Lifepod depicted brutal, claustrophobic conditions in a small space craft, containing a handful of survivors from the terrorist bombing of a much larger space transport. Looking very much like the ocean liner from one of the first large-scale disaster films, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the large space transport holds not enough “lifepods” for its passengers, and the one vessel that does escape is in bad repair and not sufficiently stocked with food or water. Furthermore, its design is inadequate for space navigation, and its pilot, trapped in a small chamber without solar shields, dies a slow and gruesomely pustulous death from radiation bombardment. The rest of the survivors fight with each other and their depleted technological surroundings until only two remain to be saved.

Blaming the survivors’ harsh conditions on a vaguely belligerent, self-serving, and inefficient governmental authority, Lifepod contains a lesson about preparedness, with imagistic references to the Cold War’s abandoned fallout shelters and the exploding Challenger space shuttle, which carried no escape vehicles. Lifepod depicts a hostile technosystem that controls air, food, and water, as the survivors pant, sweat, bleed, freeze and starve, at the mercy of their drifting enclosure. While this psychologically tense, physically urgent, claustrophobic existence throws body-technology relationships into sharp relief, the film argues that preparedness—the prediction of all exigencies under any conditions—is possible and necessary. Unlike the negligent lifepod, a well-designed, well-stocked escape vehicle would maintain technological transparency—that is, its inhabitants would take its smooth functioning for granted, and the border between body and machine would be translucent, the oar an extension of the arm. Evoking crisis in post-industrial cultures, cybernetic relations would be stabilized in the ideal lifepod.

A symbol of preparedness and accurate prediction, the lifeboat is both a physical and psychological escape from technocultural terrors and, more ambiguously, a condensed version of that same technoculture. In a radioactive, terrorist, and generally chaotic world, one can only plan a move to a smaller, safer box—ideally the enclosed world of the harmoniously functioning and disaster-resistent spaceship. While enthusiasts herald the spaceship as a lifeboat, a way of escaping a doomed planet and sowing the seeds of homo sapiens across the universe, the Challenger space shuttle explosion on 28 January 1986, demonstrated that increasingly scaled-down lifeworlds are not especially life-sustaining. Like the unfortunate inhabitants of the negligent lifepod, the Challenger seven lived to experience a gruesome drift, the long descending spiral to the ocean where pressure crushed the crew cabin. Later, critics of NASA would ask why there were no lifeboats on the shuttle, no means of escaping a relatively untested, inevitably disastrous technology, comprised of over 700 critical components, any one of which might cause a fatal accident. One of the lessons of the Challenger disaster was that in complex closed environments, catastrophe is inescapable and its victims—even friendly school teachers—have no viable means of ejection. This televised spectacle of claustrophobia and futility riveted millions, who helplessly viewed the exploding microcosm of post-industrial life. Gregory Whitehead writes that the media’s construction of the Challenger disaster was a “thanaturgical excess of fire & fire & light,” a Futurist’s necrodrama provoking dread and shock.1

The 1980’s witnessed an unprecedented number of such media-fed disasters—core breeches in nuclear reactors, sinking ships, oil spills, chemical leaks. With a nearly continuous spectacle of large-scale technological calamity—the Bhopal Union Carbide Plant’s emission of methyl isocyanate (December 1984), the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion (January 1986), the Chernobyl nuclear reactor core explosion (April 1986), the Exxon Valdez oil spill (March 1989)—the mass media declared the 1980’s, the “age of limits.” As Charles Perrow wrote in the wake of the Challenger disaster, the culture of high-risk technologies had made a “habit of courting...

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