Lessons From “The Challenger” Tragedy

By Ron Halbrook

The date 28 January 1986 is now etched into American history as a day of tragedy. The flight of “The Challenger” was the 25th in the space shuttle program and a total of 15 such flights was scheduled for 1986. But just 73 seconds into “The Challenger’s” flight, as the vehicle was reaching the speed of 2,900 feet per second (or 1,977 m.p.h), it exploded in a horrible burst of flames. In a huge fireball of orange, yellow, and red, the spacecraft suddenly disintegrated and its seven passengers were killed instantly.

This was a tragedy for N.A.S.A. because the space program received its worst setback in history and it would cost $2 billion to replace the vehicle. This was also a national tragedy and our whole nation wept together. The space shuttle is a national symbol just like the bald eagle. These six astronauts and the schoolteacher who joined them represented America at her best America adventuring, exploring, reaching for the stars. All mankind mourned the worst disaster in the history of man’s effort to explore space. Expressions of sympathy came from all over the world to Washington D.C. and to the bereaved families.

But above all, this was a personal tragedy for seven precious souls and their families. These seven people were not aged and weary with life but were in top physical shape, at the zenith of their intellectual powers, approaching their 40s in age, raising families, and full of life in every way. When seven candles of life, burning so brightly, are so suddenly snuffed out, the mind staggers under the weight of sorrow and the tongue is paralyzed for appropriate words of sympathy. Our hearts go out to these seven individuals and all of their families, friends, and loved ones.

This tragedy is full of lessons, if only we will take the time to reflect upon them. “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart” (Eccl. 7:2). What are some lessons we can take to heart from this hour of sadness?

1. Man’s frailty in the midst of success. As to the flesh, we are male and female, but the inner man is made “in the image of God.” Like God, man has an intelligent mind and the power to make choices. The whole universe reflects the mind of its Creator and lies before us as a challenge to be explored, understood, and utilized for our good (Gen. 1:26-28). The universe is so constructed as to yield its blessings to man, but also is so constructed as to remind man that he is not God. Man is frail and weak before Almighty God! Man must not be intoxicated by his advances in learning so that he becomes puffed up and forgets God.

O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who has set thy glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider thy heavens, and the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psa. 8:1-4)

Man’s progress in science, medicine, space travel, and every branch of learning should cause us to stand in awe of the great power and the great love of God.

When man becomes arrogant over his achievements in space or other endeavors, let him remember the tragedy of “The Challenger.” We may boast of our accomplishments, but danger and death haunt our every step on the road of adventure and progress. Only God stands above the limits of danger, disease, and death. We must trust Him, not ourselves.

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God (Psa. 90:1-2).

2. Under law to God. Our world and our lives are always subject to Divine law. The operation of natural law is regular and dependable which makes it possible for us to utilize electricity, to travel in space, and to accomplish many other things. The laws of God prevail in both the physical and the spiritual realms. God’s law is for man’s good. “Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the Lord’s thy God, the earth also, with all that therein is” (Deut. 10: 13-14). God’s law is a blessing to man and a testimony to God’s goodness:

For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater:

So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto, I sent it (Isa. 55:10-11).

Love your enemies. . .

That ye may be the children of our Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:44-45).

. . . the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein. . . .

. . . he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:15-17).

The psalmist saw that “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handywork” (Psa. 19: ). The bounty of each day and the beauty of each night point men of all lands and languages to the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. The universe is emphatically governed by law and order! This law and order point up the glory, power, and wisdom of God. The more man learns and abides in these natural laws, the more he reaps the blessings of nature. By utilizing the law and order of the universe, man has learned to travel in space. God’s laws are good and perfect, but when man ignores or breaks them for any reason, even unintentionally, tragedy occurs.

The psalmist who reflected on God’s law in the physical realm also realized that the spiritual universe is subject to Divine law and order.

The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes (Psa. 19:7-8).

The fullness of God’s “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). We are under law to Christ (1 Cor. 9:21). We must look into “the perfect law of liberty” and live by it if we would enjoy the blessings God has for our soul (Jas. 1:25). To ignore or disobey God’s law in the spiritual and moral realm is certain destruction. “And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:23). Man can neither travel in space nor save his soul unless he learns, respects, and abides within the laws which God ordained for man’s good.

3. From power to helplessness. Harnessing powers almost beyond our imagination, American astronauts have soared into space and safely returned 55 times in the last 25 years. “The Challenger” perched atop an external tank which was 154 feet high and carried 143,351 gallons of liquid oxygen and 385,265 gallons of liquid hydrogen, and atop two boosters which were each 149 feet high and carried 1.1 million pounds of solid fuel. As these fuels ignited, “The Challenger” was reaching the speed of 2,900 feet per second or 1,977 m.p.h. within just 73 seconds! But within another milisecond, the astronauts went from a state of tremendous power to a state of total helplessness. Death took them before they could blink an eye. There was no escape.

Life affords many examples of man passing from great power to total helplessness. Presiden John F. Kennedy held the greatest position of political power on the earth as president of the United States, but he crumpled helplessly when an assassin’s bullet struck his head in 1963. His wife sitting next to him could not help. Well trained Selective Service men could not help, nor could the best doctors in Dallas. Howard Hughes had a great financial empire at his beck and call. But when death came knocking, the finest doctors in the world could not avail.

No matter what powers and pleasures we may have in this life, death will separate us from them all:

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun (Eccl. 9:5-6).

All the things that mean so much to us in this life, all the things that win our affections and capture our energies, will pale in significance at death. We will have no more participation in those things which we leave behind on earth. The only thing that will matter to us then is our relationship to God:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil (Eccl. 12:13-14).

Sin offers a moment of pleasure and a delusion of power – “I’m my own boss, I do my own thing.” Then, sin leaves us hopelessly separated from God. We are incapable of surmounting this barrier by our own wisdom or ingenuity. When Adam and Eve sinned, they “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (Gen. 3:8). “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:2). “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). The meaning of that death as separation from God even beyond this world is seen in the story of the rich fool of Luke 16:19-31. He was “tormented in this flame” and totally helpless to do anything about it – just as helpless as the astronauts who had no way of escape when their orbiter exploded.

Details Matter!

4. The importance of detail. Senator John Glenn, an astronaut himself, said, “We’re dealing with speeds and powers and complexities we’ve never dealt with before. ” A missile engineer explained the significance of a possible leak in the external fuel tank: “Even if you get a small leak, that hole would get bigger in a matter of seconds, and you’d have hell in a handbasket very quickly” (Time Magazine, 10 Feb. 1986, p. 37). We can be thankful that N.A.S.A.’s devotion to detail has delayed several flights until even minor problems could be corrected, no doubt averting other possible tragedies.

Polls consistently show that well over 90 percent of Americans claim to believe in God, but the lives of many people show very little attention to the details of serving God. True faith in God requires faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and obedience to the commands of God (Jn. 14:1-6; 1 Jn. 5:1-3). Jesus said, “No man cometh to the Father, but by me,” and, “If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (Jn. 14:6; 8:24). It will not do to wave our hand and say, “Jews, Moslems, and Christians all believe in the same God – the details about Jesus Christ do not matter. ” Ignoring the details will lead to tragedy for the soul.

Jesus said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mk. 16:16). This means that faith in Christ and immersion in water are both essential to the remission of our sins. But people commonly think they can be saved before baptism or even without it. Others think that sprinkling or pouring water on the sinner is just as good as immersion – “the details don’t matter.” In the Bible days there were words for “sprinkle” and “pour,” but they are never used in reference to “baptism” – a separate word meaning to dip, plunge, or immerse (see Lev. 14:15-16). Baptism means being “buried” in and “raised” from water, requiring “much water” (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12; Jn. 3:23). Details matter!

Deity or the Godhead includes three Divine persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; Jn. 1:1; Acts 5:3,3,9). But some sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the full Deity of Jesus, and others such as the United Pentecostals claim that only Jesus is God. What about the church of which you are a member – can you find in the Bible its origin, name, worship, organization, and doctrine? If we were flying on the space shuttle, we would want every detail to be right. Some detail was overlooked, and seven died. Details matter for the safety of the space shuttle and for the more important safety of the soul!

5. No promise of tomorrow. The astronauts were planning to conduct experiments in space and the first school teacher in space was to teach American students via T.V. from the orbiter. N.A.S.A. had projected an ambitious program. of 15 shuttle flights for 1986. All these plans and projections were destroyed when “The Challenger” disintegrated.

It is right to plan for the future, but we must learn not to declare arrogantly what we will or will not do tomorrow. Those who boast about tomorrow and leave God out of their proposals are headed sooner or later for disappointment and disaster.

Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.

For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this or that (Jas. 5:14-15).

We do not know what will be on the morrow because accident or disease may end our lives. But, also, the Lord may return.

Some folks are trying to tell when the Lord will return, but we know not on what morrow He will come. There are signs in Matthew 24 pointing to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It all came to pass in the generation of people to whom Jesus spoke (Matt. 24:34). As to the final end of the world, Jesus added, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (v. 36). If we would save our soul, we must always be ready for His coming. “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (v. 42). Just as the astronauts could not foresee the tragic events of that fateful day which overtook them, so also we cannot foresee tomorrow. Are we ready to face God when this life shall be no more?

“In A Moment, In The Twinkling Of An Eye”

6. In an instant. “The Challenger” and its crew had no warning in spite of the fact that the orbiter’s computer was constantly fed information from some 2,000 sensors and data points. In an instant, in the blinking of an eye, in a millisecond, destruction came. Our lives, too, can be suddenly taken by a car wreck, a stroke, a heart attack, or some other unforeseen tragedy. How slender is the thread of life!

The coming of Christ will be sudden and unexpected. Some who think they can predict when Jesus will return stop the normal course of life and wait on a mountain top, only to be disappointed. Jesus said people will be busy with life when He returns in an instant:

For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark,

And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be (Matt. 24:38-39).

The Lord’s return will be as sudden and unexpected as the intrusion of a thief in the night (Matt. 24:43; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3: 10). The destruction of the world and the punishment of the wicked will come suddenly, just as the resurrection of all men will occur “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Thess. 5:3; 1 Cor. 15:52). We must prepare to face God before that moment arrives because there will be no time or opportunity to prepare after it arrives.

7. Fiery destruction, no escape. It gave us all a helpless and hopeless feeling to see “The Challenger” engulfed in fire and to realize there could be no escape for the crew. The graphic fireball we saw is but a miniature of the one which shall engulf the universe at the end of time. “The heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Pet. 3: 10). The wicked pretend that such a time will not come or that they shall somehow escape. “For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape” (1 Thess. 5:3). The fire of God’s anger will pursue the sinner into eternity – everlasting punishment will be in “everlasting fire” (Matt. 25:41,46). We must turn to God and be saved before that fiery destruction falls, for there will be no escape in that day.

8. Too late to pray. After “The Challenger” tragedy, the Pope and other religious leaders asked people to pray for the astronauts. This was an unfortunate misdirection of prayer. We should pray for the astronaut’s families, that they may find their comfort in God, but to pray for the dead is a meaningless formality invented by men. We can neither help nor hurt the dead by what we do or say. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Each of us must be judged on the basis of our deeds in this life, not on the basis of what someone else preached on or prayed after we leave earth life (Eccl. 12:14; 2 Cor. 5:10).

The doctrine of prayers for the dead can hurt the living. It can cause us to think that a prayer or a funeral sermon will save our soul after we die, and so may cause us to not make the proper preparations for death while we five. While we live, we enter God’s family and save our soul, not by prayer, but by believing the gospel, repenting of our sins, confessing Christ, and being immersed in water (Acts 2:38; 8:35-39; 9:11,18; 22:16). Prayer will restore and save the erring only if he repents of and confesses his sins while he lives (Acts 8:13-24).

9. Help the living. Although the care and concern we feel for the dead cannot help them now, there is someone we can help. The living! If our sympathy and love are genuine, we will show it toward those we actually can help. Perhaps we say, “I would do anything to bring the shuttle crew back or to help them, if only there was something I could do.” We may be like the man whose friend asked, “If you had $2 million, would you give me $1 million? ” “Yes, gladly!” “If you had two Cadillacs, would you give me one?” “Oh, yes!” “Well, if you had two pigs, would you give me one?” “Certainly not,” came the answer, “and that’s not fair you know I have two pigs!” We cannot help the dead, but there are widows, orphans, and others who need our help (Jas. 1:27; Gal. 6:10). What are we doing about it? After telling of the Good Samaritan who was a neighbor to someone in need, Jesus said, “Go, and do thou likewise” (Lk. 10:30-37).

10. The only thing that matters. It is right to admire and appreciate the astronauts. But when we join them in death, it will not matter whether we were an astronaut or a janitor, a bank president or a ditch digger. It will not matter whether we were rich or poor, educated or uneducated, white or black, always well or often sick. The only thing that will matter is: Did we put God first and serve Him faithfully, so that we can be with Him in heaven forever? “But seek ye first the kingdom of God. . . . For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?. . . . No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33; 16:26; Lk. 9:62). Jesus said that we are too often “careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful” (Lk. 10:41-42). That one imperative need is that we learn and obey God’s will unto the saving our eternal soul! Everything else from space travel to grocery shopping, from our favorite sport to our favorite easy chair, from what kind of bed we sleep on to what kind of coffin we are buried in, is secondary.

If the astronauts could speak to us from the land of the dead, they would tell us what the Bible also tells us – the most important thing we can do in life is to love and serve God with all of our being. But if we will not hear that message from the Word of God, we would not obey it even if the astronauts could speak to us from the dead. What are we doing, right now, about our soul and our relationship to God?

Guardian of Truth XXX: 6, 168-169, 180-181
March 20, 1986