It has been 32 years since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded upon liftoff. It is one of those “remember where you were when this event happened” moments. On January 28, 1986 I was working as a Software Engineer at Nixdorf Computer. Even during this pre-ubiquitous internet time, we found out that something major had happened to the Space Shuttle launch. We turned on a television and begin watching the replay of the explosion. I remember thinking, there is no way anyone survived that event. We were all speechless and in shock. The entire nation was in shock. How could this happen to the US Space program?

I have been a space geek for most of my life.  I slept under a Friendship 7 blanket and owned a scale model of the Apollo Saturn 5 rocket.

I have vague memories of another Apollo 1 disaster that occurred in 1967. The Apollo command module was being tested with the astronauts locked in the capsule breathing pure oxygen. There was some sort of spark and all three astronauts died in a horrible fire.

The Space Shuttle was the space transportation system that followed the Apollo and Sky-lab programs. It looked more like and airplane than a traditional rocket. Much of the Space Shuttle was designed to be reusable to save costs and speed launch turnaround time. By 1986, NASA was touting the routine nature of space flight and they were signing up more civilian astronauts. The idea was, space travel is safe enough for everyone. This January 1986 Challenger mission was the launch vehicle for the teacher in space, Christine McAuliffe.

It was a cold day in Florida on January 28th, 1986 with the temperature hovering just above freezing. There were areas of concern regarding a cold weather launch. One area in particular was the O-rings on the solid rocket boosters. These rings were designed to expand and seal the dangerous gases inside the booster. In the cold weather the O-rings did not expand as much, allowing hot gas to escape the booster and burn into the liquid oxygen tanks leading to the devastating explosion.

There were engineers who knew the risk of launching in cold weather was too high. Through ineffective communication channels and a heavy dose of “launch fever,” the message was never efficaciously delivered to the decision makers. These folks involved were highly intelligent professionals who gave in to flawed group think and human frailties. It is easy to look back at this and condemn those involved. Certainly, these folks ultimately bore the responsibility, but in my view, there was a complete failure of the senior leadership team.

Today space travel has moved from a wholly government managed endeavor to a combination of private industry and government. I am amazed at what SpaceX has been able to accomplish and believe they have a bright future.  I am starting to hear talk about space travel becoming routine to the point that the general public can buy a ticket and take a ride like air travel. This idea concerns me even 32 years after the Challenger disaster.

Space is an incredibly harsh environment. An argument can be made the human beings simply do not belong in space. Still, the human spirit demands to explore. Exploration is a good thing. Many of the technologies we enjoy today were born out of the Space Program. Because space is such a harsh environment, the margin for success is razor thin. I am concerned we may be heading for another Challenger like disaster if too much emphasis is placed on making space travel routine. Maybe someday space travel will become routine, but I don’t think we are there now. I certainly hope the current folks leading the space program have learned the hard lessons from the Challenger disaster.

I am ready for the US to regain the ability to launch astronauts. Depending on the Russians to send our astronauts to space doesn’t seem like a sustainable plan. It is taking NASA, SpaceX and Boeing much longer to develop a human travel capability than anticipated.

The space program requires enormous amounts of funding. Many people believe these funds could be better used elsewhere. I am a proponent of the space program, assuming there is an agreed upon, meaningful objective. For too long NASA has been swimming in a sea of fuzzy and evolving objectives. Perhaps it is time for another Kennedy moment to focus the US space program on an inspiring objective.

What do you think of the space program? Is the program on track? Do you think spending tax money on the space program is a wise investment?

Make the most of this day!

Jumbo Jet

United Airlines final Boeing 747 flight took place on November 7, 2017. I am an aviation geek who has flown over 1.5 million miles on United Airlines. I have always been especially fascinated by the Boeing 747.

Introduced in 1969 it was by far the largest airliner in the world. The 747 held this title for over 35 years. It was a multi-story 4 engine beast of an airplane. I fully understand the principle behind powered air flight, yet it is amazing to me every time I see a 747 take-off or land. It seems unnatural for so much metal to be in the air.

The 747 didn’t make short domestic flights, the airplane was usually headed to an exotic destination in a faraway land. This airplane came on the scene when air travel was still an exciting and enjoyable experience. Because of its tremendous range, the airplane opened quick travel to many remote places. In essence, the Boeing 747 made the world a smaller place.

It is hard to imagine the need to retire such a cool airplane. What happened to the 747 that makes it financially unfeasible in today’s aviation world? To begin with, the airplane is almost 40 years old. Despite numerous technology updates, the 4-engine behemoth is not fuel efficient compared to the modern twin-engine varieties. Long haul twin-engine airplanes have met and even exceeded the range of the 747. While these new airplanes don’t hold as many passengers as the 747, they are close enough for today’s aviation industry economics.

The 747 has a unique shape. Only the first part of the airplane is 2 stories. The 747’s unique capabilities have enabled it to fill several special roles. The 747 served as a carrier for the Space Shuttle.


The 747 also found duty as Air Force One.

Air_Force_One_on_the_ground.jpgI first flew on a 747 in 1987 from Frankfurt to Atlanta. I have since flown on this airplane countless times. Each flight was special as the 747 was the largest airplane in the sky and I was going someplace far away.

What can we take away from United’s retirement of the venerable Boeing 747? First, there is a season for everything. As amazing as the 747 is, its time has come and gone. We will have the memories of this airplane and the adventurous travel it represented. Many years ago, I had a friend tell me the value of memories. At the time I was not interested in memories, but I never forgot what she told me. I now understand the importance of memories. Nothing last forever but our memories help us relive some of the awesome times in our lives. The cool thing about memories is, no one can take them away.

The second key learning is to recognize when to let go of a successful product or technology and move on to the next big thing. See above for “nothing lasts forever.” For a business, this process is very hard to implement. Some examples of hanging on too long are Kodak with film, Hewlett Packard with ink and Blockbuster with videos. We may be seeing this same phenomenon soon with Apple and the iPhone. While hard to imagine, even Google with search will be replaced someday. Every product has a life cycle. The Boeing 747 was fortunate that is life cycle has lasted over 35 years. Entire companies have been destroyed due to the inability to recognize key technology and product transitions. The problem is fully explored in Clayton Christianson’s book The Innovators Dilemma.

Goodbye United Boeing 747, you changed the world for the better. I will always remember the joy and excitement you brought to air travel. Now it is time to book my next trip on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner!

Make the most of this day!