PRINT April 1986


After the loss of Challenger, the cost of instant replay.

ON FIRST VIEWING, THE IMAGE of the exploding space shuttle Challenger looked ungraspably awful. But instant replay soon turned first viewing into second viewing, then third, and fourth. Repeated over and over, the record of a terrifying malfunction became, with appalling speed, a static emblem. Repetition carried over from television to the covers of magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and The Economist, which all showed the explosive cloud. Here and abroad, newspapers had already run the same image in edition after edition.

By the time schoolteacher/astronaut Christa McAuliffe’s face appeared on the cover of People, her image, too, had been reduced to an emblem, like a face on a commemorative medal. She was a “normal American,” according to Time; in Newsweek’s words, McAuliffe reflected “what was best in us.” Journalists echoed themselves and one another until such phrases sounded neither true nor untrue, but empty In the emptiness is the respite, the descent into an abyss where words and images are all surface, with no interior, no graspable meaning. News coverage has taught the public how to stay on the image’s surface, so the very act of looking at an image of the explosion freed us from the effort of imagining life and death on Challenger’s last flight. Every time the mind began to think in terms of flesh and blood, there was that blurring cloud.

Commentators compared the Challenger disaster to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Sometimes they went on to claim that, just as most Americans remember the circumstances in which they heard that Kennedy had been shot, so in years to come they will recall where they were when they heard that Challenger had blown up. Maybe, maybe not.

In any case, news coverage is not just keeping us informed about current events. Having become a high-speed mechanism for reducing events to emblematic images, the news now tells us how those events are going to appear to us in the future—as if the job of forming a vision of the past could be gotten out of the way immediately, instantaneously The media have taken it upon themselves to shape the patterns of remembrance, to simplify them. They teach us to let memory become an anesthetic succession of familiar images, like a picture book from Time-Life.

The week of the space-shuttle explosion, the deep-space exploratory craft Voyager 2 continued to send back pictures of the planet Uranus and its moons, ten of them newly discovered. When the Challenger disaster was fresh, Voyager reminded us that space is for the most part cold, not hot. The data gathered by Voyager had an icy, inhuman, abstract feel, in contrast to the searing immediacy of the last picture Challenger sent to our television screens. But the images we saw of the lives of McAuliffe and her colleagues, like the ineradicable icon of the explosion, soon looked as abstract and schematized, in their way, as the pictures of the two new rings around the seventh planet, pictures that Voyager transmitted to earth in the form of binary patterns.

Images like that shut down our intellectual energies, reducing thought to routine patterns. Feelings have difficulty surviving in the abyss of images, only automatic words like “shock,” “grief”: and so on. The historical importance of the Challenger explosion was immediately obvious. It raised questions about the purposes of science and technology, about the government’s fitness to guide those purposes, about the public’s faith in space programs. But to begin to understand Challenger’s full meaning, we must try to sense what it would have been like to learn about the disaster without being numbed by the media.

Carter Ratcliff writes on the topic of modern life for Artforum.