A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Extreme Caution
by Rosemary Eskridge (Jan 2010)

        Thursday night, January 21, 1985, as we prepared to travel to Orlando Florida, I straightened Gordon’s desk, moving the press kit for the “Teacher in Space Program” to the middle of his desk. We would be participating in the Teacher in Space Workshop and the flurry of speeches, parties, and site-seeing prior to the launch of the Space Shuttle. The week’s activities would culminate in a NASA launch of Challenger and Christa McAuliffe, the finalist for the Teacher in Space Program.

        The press kit contained photos of Christa McAuliffe and the experiments that she would be demonstrating in orbit. Teachers back on Earth would replicate the experiments with their students in the classroom. The plan was to compare growth of bean plants in space with growth of beans in classrooms all over the Earth.

        On Saturday, my husband’s partner Bob Mayfield had to return to the Kennedy Space Center to water the bean sprouts that were part of Christy’s experiments. Because Gordon was teaching a workshop, Bob asked to go to the Launch Site and help him with the watering responsibility. Getting to go to NASA’s Life Science Lab was incredible. What stories I could tell my students!

        We arrived at the Launch Site and passed through security. I watched Bob place syringes filled with water into the septums attached to the test tubes containing the sprouted beans. As we tested the tubes for leakage, one septum sprinkled water on the table. To resolve the problem in a hurry, Bob borrowed some duct tape from the lab located adjacent to ours where Purdue University’s Space Shuttle Student Involvement Program, “Chicks in Space,” was being prepared for the launch.

         Joseph described his experiment and showed us his incubator that held eggs that would be hatched in space. He gave us “Chicks in Space” pins, and we returned to seal the test tube with duct tape. We finished securing the plants and placed them in a container to take to the clean room. We donned white suits and white shoe covers and went into the clean room to weigh the experiment before it would be placed in the Challenger.

         All experiments contain paper work, and the last question asked, “Did you do anything different than what was described in the protocol for the experiment?” After a brief explanation about the use of duct tape, we spent the next five hours contacting the tape’s manufacturer to check the duct tape’s molecular make-up for the possibility of its off-gassing. I was amazed at the extreme caution NASA engineers demonstrated over what seemed like an insignificant piece of duct tape. We arrived back at the workshop in time to hear the end of Christa’s presentation.

        Sunday morning the launch was delayed again because of the frigid cold and some problems with the hatch. Again, engineers showed extreme caution for safety. Monday morning, two minutes after launch, the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded.


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