Science and The 24 hour News Cycle

Space Shuttle Challenger

On January 28, 1986 I was on the cusp of 11 years old and quietly cranking away at some in-class assignment in elementary school when our routine was abruptly halted by someone, I don't remember if it was a student or an adult, barging in to announce that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded shortly after take-off. Regularly scheduled curriculum was suspended right then and there. History was happening and we were going to be fully immersed, whether we liked it or not. Every available media cart in the school was called into service and everyone, student and adult, crowded around them to witness the story as it unfolded.

This was the first exposure to the 24 hour news cycle that I recall. The story was told over and over with details, whether fact or supposition, that were regurgitated and presented in every possible permutation over the following weeks and months. This has not changed much since other than possibly becoming even more sensationalized.

1986 was a simpler time technologically. Obvious science was not as pervasive in our daily existence. Cable TV was still new, VCRs were giant and expensive, digital media was practically unheard of, and MTV actually played music videos (I was partial to the Thriller video). This lack of daily exposure to technology meant that as a society we paid more attention to the "headline sciences" happening on a national level. There was no bigger "headline science" than NASA and the space shuttle program, so launches were a very big deal and a disaster was the Super Bowl of science in popular culture. 73 seconds as a term had context in the blink of an eye. If you heard that term, you knew immediately that it was in reference to the time from liftoff to breakup of the space shuttle Challenger. The image of the solid rocket boosters continuing in uncontrolled flight from the breakup cloud from the external fuel tank is seared into my memory and likely the memories of a large portion of the people gathered around those media carts long ago and far away at Westerly Hills Elementary in Charlotte, NC. I did a report based upon the event and even drew my version of this image from memory and looking back at it, the details are amazing. The flight trajectories of the uncontrolled boosters were even accurately represented.

73 seconds of video were stretched into hour upon hour of news coverage and theories of what caused the breakup, although it was incorrectly labeled an explosion, were talked in circles and into nonsense. The loss of seven crew members always seemed to be the undercurrent of coverage. We knew they lost their lives and that sent ripples through families around the country, but it is easier to talk about details of mechanical failures than to think about a grieving spouse, parent, child or circle of close friends.

Be easy STS-51L crew.

Comment Stream

3 years ago

It's definitely true that how a media outlet decides to cover an event (of any kind) greatly affects our memory and perception. However, for better or for worse, the impact of media isn't as great as it once was.

If a significant event occurs nowadays, everyone learns about it through facebook or twitter. I'm not even sure if people under the age of 20 watch the news on television. In an era where everyone can be an amateur journalist, the validity and impact of a a single outlet's opinion is greatly lessened.

I guess time will tell if this is good or bad. I'm rather unsure myself.