Four Hours in Community

The nation came together yesterday in a moment of disaster and loss. Wherever Americans heard the news -- at work, at school or at home -- they shared their grief over the death of the seven astronauts, among them one who had captured their imaginations, Christa McAuliffe, the teacher from Concord, N.H., who was to be the first ordinary citizen to go into space.

Shortly before noon, when the first word of the explosion came, daily events seemed to stop as people asked the same questions: "What happened? Are there any survivors?"

New York Times, Page 1, January 29, 1986

The space shuttle is gone. The news is clear. It exploded on Camera.

SHUTTLE FORUM, Append 1, January 28, 1986, 12:04 PM

The space shuttle Challenger exploded during lift off at 11:39 AM on January 28, 1987. This explosion was immediately apparent to many television viewers who watched the lift off, the first shuttle flight carrying a civilian passenger. The news was not immediately known, however, to millions of working people, including hundreds of thousands of IBM employees both in the United States and overseas, many of whom were working at the time of the tragedy. News filtered in to IBM employees in many ways. Among those who were not working, some watched it happen, either on television or in person. Others heard the news as they were awakened by clock radios. Among those who were working, some heard about it from friends or relatives via telephone, others heard about it from co-workers who walked the halls spreading their own disbelief, and many others via P.A. announcements made at various IBM locations.

The earliest news of the tragedy for some, and the only ongoing source of information for many IBM employees who tried to keep working, came via computer conferencing. The first news appeared on the IBMPC conferencing facility in SHUTTLE FLASH, a short note that reported the disaster less than twenty minutes after it happened. It was followed, within minutes, with an eyewitness report on SCIFI FORUM and the almost simultaneous appearance of SHUTTLE FORUMs on both the IBMPC and IBMVM conferencing facilities. These forums were almost immediately cross linked by the administrators of IBMPC and IBMVM, effectively making them a single conference. As a result, appends directed to either were appended to both.

An exceptional event

The merged SHUTTLE FORUM would eventually grow to encompass 136 appends written by 107 people. 86 of those appends were written in the first four hours the forum was open. The remaining 50 were posted after the forum reopened two days later. As a result, the forum clearly divides into two distinct portions. In the first four hours, a new append arrived, on average, about every three minutes. Over the other six days the forum was open, there were only eight appends a day. In the early forum, the appends are very reactive. In the later forum, they tend to be more reflective. This difference is reflected in length of the appends. There is a consistent increase in the length of appends throughout the forum, but appends from the last six days are much longer than those made over the first four hours.

No clear purpose was ever declared for SHUTTLE FORUM. It grew, in large part, simply as an IBMPC community response to the incomprehensible. The decision to keep the forum open was initially based in part on the exceptional nature of the event, which precipitated a number of highly unusual actions throughout IBM including, at many sites, loadspeaker announcements of the tragedy. The forum provided a means for news of the event to reach IBM employees on an ongoing basis without requiring them to leave their desks. It was felt, in the subsequent recollection of John Alvord, then management owner of IBMPC under Waldbaum, that discussion of the event was inevitable, and that providing a single outlet for that discussion made it easier to review and manage.

The initial plan was to keep the forum open for only a short time. It became clear in subsequent discussion, however, that many IBM employees felt a special interest and involvement in the space and shuttle program. This involvement was, in many cases, literal. IBM has had equipment and software on every U. S. manned space mission, and many IBMPC participants have worked with the space program at one time or another. This involvement was key to the decisions that kept the forum open longer than had been originally envisioned. Although the forum content was reviewed as it came in, there was no attempt to give it direction until the IBMPC administrators advised participants not to engage in "speculation or rumors as to the cause of the disaster".

SHUTTLE FORUM was and is regarded as an exceptional event on IBMPC. It is paralleled only in such exceptional events as QUAKE FORUM, in which IBM sought to understand the effects of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (the one that rocked the 1989 World Series in San Fransisco) on its business, employees, and products.

Early news

The tone of SHUTTLE FORUM is established in its first appends, of which the following (the first append to the IBMPC version of the forum), is fairly typical:

Re: Reactions to disaster

I don't know about you, but I'm so sad. This forum is to talk about it.

The space shuttle is gone. The news is clear. It exploded on camera.

IBMVM started even more simply:

NEWS FLASH

We're getting reports that the U.S. Space shuttle has blown up on take-off. No further details known at this time.

Neither append establishes a real purpose for the forum. The most directed words tell the reader that "This forum is to talk about it." But talk about what; the news; the emotions? The first appends encompass both, and the forum follows suit, expanding on both themes and adding others, often in unexpected ways. The simultaneous appearance of two SHUTTLE FORUMs clearly showed that the forum was an idea whose time had come. IBM Employees, not only in the U.S., but around the world, needed to, as the New York Times eloquently put it the next day, come together "in a moment of disaster", "share their grief", and "ask the ... questions: What happened? Are their any survivors?"

SHUTTLE FORUM turned into a place where a wide range of people in a wide range of places could come together and ask the questions that needed to be asked, find the answers that could be given, and express themselves. The forum would ultimately encompass contributors from Europe, Asia, and across the U.S. and Canada. It would include people with the technical expertise to explain what probably happened; people who were currently, or had previously been, directly involved in the space program; people who had followed the space program with fervor since childhood; people who simply cared deeply about what had happened; and people who wondered if too much was being made of a disaster that, on a scale of everyday disasters, involved a fairly small number of fatalities.

A great deal is documented in the record of SHUTTLE FORUM, far more than can be reviewed in a chapter that will be barely a third the length of the transcript on which it is based. The most important themes of forum organize themselves, however, into a sequence of reactions, as news and emotion evolve from disbelief to certainty to hope to hopelessness to grief, all the while building a new sense of community with people across the company and around the world.

Initial Disbelief

The first stage in this evolution was clearly disbelief. Nobody wanted to believe the news. As an employee from Cary, North Carolina put it in append 100, written the day of the disaster, but posted to SHUTTLE FORUM three days later:

It's been about 4 hours since I first heard the news. I still can't believe it. I read the file SHUTTLE FLASH and thought it was a joke. Then I called a friend in Boca and the news was confirmed.
Two appends later, a posting from Raleigh, N.C. echoes these sentiments:
... a friend came into my office and asked if I'd heard that the shuttle blew up. I, too, at first thought it was a joke.

This sense of disbelief is a widely shared initial reaction. It was shared by the creator of SHUTTLE FORUM on IBMPC, who called home and listened to the television report and reaction of his wife after not wanting to believe the report from his manager, who had received a phone call from a friend. It was only after he had eyewitness confirmation from the television replay that he broadcast the news in SHUTTLE FLASH and started SHUTTLE FORUM.

Based on the first few appends of the forum, other people must have done the same thing upon reading SHUTTLE FLASH and SHUTTLE FORUM, because nearly twenty minutes passed between the time the IBMPC version of SHUTTLE FORUM was created and the time the second append appeared, by far the longest time lag that would be recorded on the forum that day. In the four hours the forum was open that day, an append would be made roughly once every three minutes. The initial twenty minute lag is nearly twice as long as the next longest gap in the forum, the 12 minute lag between the second and third appends.

Confirmation

The wording of the second and third appends reflect this initial disbelief, even as their content confirm the news broadcast in the forums initial entries. In the second append, some 44 minutes after the disaster, we learn that:

Kingston got the announcement over the loudspeakers that the shuttle had indeed exploded shortly after lift-off. A parachute and capsule was spotted, but confirmed as NOT being from the shuttle.

This message is explicitly worded to act as a confirmation. "The shuttle had indeed exploded shortly after lift-off" (emphasis added). This was not, moreover, rumor or a joke, but (by implication) an official announcement made at the IBM Kingston location "over the loudspeakers" The append also contains some disheartening news. "A parachute and capsule was spotted" (hope?), "but confirmed as NOT" (the writer emphasizes the bad news) "being from the shuttle."

Twelve minutes later, a third append, also posted from Kingston, N.Y., provides additional confirmation:

From the early news...

We have been told that we'll be kept informed, but it is likely that the most information will be in tomorrow's New York Times.

The shuttle exploded at the point of maximum dynamic pressure (ie when it breaks the sound barrier). It took 15 minutes for the major sections to fall into the Atlantic Ocean. At that height, it is expected that no one survived.

I, for one, am shocked and saddened.

Simply expressed, this message tells us that there isn't much news ("We've been told we'll be kept informed"), but it really happened (You'll be able to read about it "in tomorrow's" newspaper). The author goes on to tell us what he knows, including a confirmation of the worst: "it is expected that no one survived." Finally, the author expresses his own acceptance of the news. He is "shocked and saddened."

Eyewitness Account

If even more definitive confirmation was required, it was not long in coming. The eighth append to SHUTTLE FORUM, posted from Boca Raton, Florida at 12:53 PM EST, barely 50 minutes after the forum opened, provides the ultimate confirmation:

***Copied from SCIFI FORUM***

Re: Shuttle

I just watched the shuttle explode from my office window. I don't think I have ever seen anything like it in my life. There's no explaining the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you see something like that. They're checking the ocean for survivors, but there's virtually no chance. I'm afraid the shuttle program will be grounded for quite some time now. What a tragedy.

The second and third hand reports of the first threes appends to SHUTTLE FORUM provide a certain level of news and confirmation, but the eyewitness account of the eighth append has a nearly irrefutable credibility. There is an undeniable finality to what we read. "I just watched the shuttle explode...". "They're checking the ocean for survivors, but there's virtually no chance." And the append continues:

Re: Shuttle

Some lazy cloudlike formations in the sky are all that remain now. The soft hazy appearance now belies the fiery contrail that split in two. The two pieces split apart and continued upward for a few seconds before the glow went out. The radio said the debris was like snow. Think of the schoolteacher with her children and pupils in the stands cheering her on. I'm afraid those of you wanting back in the space program will have a hard time now. We've been set back years today.

In the second part of this eyewitness account, the descriptions read like poetry: "Some lazy cloudlike formations are all that remain...". They belie "the fiery contrail that split in two ... and continued upward for a few minutes before the glow went out." "The debris was like snow." If the simple statement of, and witness to, the facts are not not enough to convince one of the reality of the event, the emotion that inspires these descriptions should leave no doubt of the reality of the disaster. It's hard, even as this is written some 23 months later, to read his description without feeling the underlying sadness and resignation.

The eighth append is actually two appends written some time apart. Both had been originally posted to SCIFI FORUM. The author, having discovered SHUTTLE FORUM, moves them together to the newly established focus of discussion for the event. People who have read SCIFI FORUM since the explosion may have already seen these appends, but it is new information for many, including the originators of the forum.

Even in the depths of a certainty based in eyewitness reports, the news remains hard to accept. Another eyewitness reports in the 78th append to SHUTTLE FORUM, some 3 hours and forty minutes after the forum opened, that:

I watched the shuttle blow up with my eyes. I didn't want to believe it. I thought, the SRBs separated too early, they'll just have to abort. Now four hours later, it's still only slowly starting to sink in.

Indeed, even with the passage of time, the explosion of the Challenger remains hard to accept, and a week later, a student at IBM's Corporate Technical Institutes at Thornwood still harbors a measure of disbelief:

When the blast happened last week I was able to see it on a TV moments later. It effected me rather deeply, and today I'm only just getting out of it. I still can't believe it.

Nonetheless, the existence of SHUTTLE FORUM helped people to accept and deal with the tragedy. In append 102, a Raleigh employee writes that "reading the appends pouring in from all over helped me appreciate the magnitude of the event, come to terms with my own sadness ..."

Hope ...

Indeed, even in the face of confirmation of the worst, both from news reports and eyewitness accounts, there remained hope that, at the very least, the crew might have survived. "Last word I heard they thought the shuttle may be intact," writes a perhaps overly hopeful Poughkeepsie, N.Y. employee in the fifth append to the forum. "Lets hope they're right". In the twelfth append less hopeful Vermont contributor continues:

Re: Survival

Considering the stresses of launch and reentry the shuttle was designed to withstand, what are the chances of the cockpit remaining more or less intact? The fuel and oxidizer connections are in the back end, the fuel tank faces the belly, the strongest part. How much fuel is spent by 1 minute into the flight?

Terminal velocity for an unstreamlined falling object is on the order of 90-120 mph, regardless of height. If the aft section of the shuttle were destroyed the front might qualify for unstreamlined. At high speed water is hard, but how hard?

I would like to believe the crew is alive, but even if the cabin had survived I fear the G forces of the explosion and splashdown would have been too much.

Shocked

The hopes expressed, however slim, are real. Many people hoped against hope that someone would survive the explosion, fall, and impact. If there wasn't much basis for hope, it was more than made up for by the amount that remained unknown when the 12th append was made, barely an hour after the forum was started, and the fervent desire that things not be entirely as bad as they appeared. If there was little hope to find in the early reports, however, there would be even less as eyewitnesses and more technically knowledgeable people began to clarify the problems.

... and Hopelessness

Consider, for instance, the magnitude of the explosion, as reported from an eyewitness from Tampa in the 30th append (1:41 PM) of the forum. He "saw the explosion via binoculars from the front door" of his home, and remained home watching the replays:

After seeing the size of the explosion compared to the size of the shuttle, I'm afraid that there's no hope for survival (recovery crews who are now entering the area report nothing but small fragments).

The sense of hopelessness implicit to this append is only compounded in the forum's 40th append (2:12 PM), where a Kingston, N.Y. appender notes that he's:

not sure what good a warning would have done them. I do not believe there are any escape pods on the Shuttle, or any escape mechanism whatsoever, except to disengage from the rocket engines and attempt a 'normal' landing. I doubt there was enough time for a computer to react, let alone a human.

What we learn in these two appends, put plainly, is that the explosion probably destroyed the shuttle, and even if it didn't, there was really no mode of escape. Indeed, even if there had been a mode of escape, there probably wasn't time to to make use of it. A Manassas, VA employee later states this even more bluntly when he notes that "I don't believe the crew was ever aware of a problem." "The entire sequence takes only a few frames (of video tape) to go from 'normal' to the total disintegration of the shuttle."

If the news isn't good, these appends at least leave readers with the consolation of feeling that it was quick; that the astronauts in Challenger died quickly, perhaps never knowing that anything happened. There is no such consolation in the more technical analysis offered by a scientist at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center (Hawthorn, N.Y.) in append 41 (2:14 PM):

to have a powerful explosion, you have to have a strong enough container for pressures to build up. ...the external fuel tank was not all that strong. ...the main external tank explosion would not have been sufficient to disintegrate the orbiter so quickly.

...the massive drag caused by the disintegrating main tank would have tossed the shuttle into a destructive tumble. this was a major cause of destruction of the early X-planes exploring the supersonic region for the first time. ... the main tank would have burst into flames as soon as it broke, hiding whatever else may have happened with a large fireball.

The big problem with this append is that the author seems to know what he's talking about. Early in the append he describes why the explosion probably wouldn't have destroyed the shuttle. The explosion of the main fuel tank probably wasn't all that powerful. Late in the append he provides a rationale describing exactly what people saw in person and on camera, a massive fireball that hid nearly everything else from view. In the middle he describes a depressing scene. The shuttle, which will probably remain intact after the explosion, wouldn't merely fall into the ocean. "Drag" would toss "the shuttle into a destructive tumble" like those that destroyed so many experimental airplanes in the 1950's. In other words, the crew may well have lived long enough to know they were about to die, and been unable to do anything about it.

All of this is described clinically, as a diagnosis of what naturally follows when certain events take place. In retrospect, moreover, the analysis holds up well. It appears that the occupants of the shuttle did live long enough to realize what was happening, and to begin to take action. At the time SHUTTLE FORUM was active, however, it was simply credible, and most depressingly so. The message, when taken in the context of other appends, is simple. Whether the cause of death was the explosion, the fall, or a destructive tumble, there really wasn't any hope for survivors.

The inevitable resignation to hopelessness is summed up in the following append. by a member of IBM's NASA support team located in Houston:

Observations from Houston...

Over the past years, many of my co-workers and I have speculated on what would happen if the unthinkable occurred - if we lost one of the birds. Deep down, we all knew that the law of averages would catch up with us someday, even as we were praying that it never would.

The shock is fading away, and the realization is setting in....

The country has lost seven of its finest men & women today. I knew one of the crew - not well, but enough to feel his loss at a personal level. We will mourn them all...

Forget any technical reasons why there isn't any hope for survivors. There simply isn't any. The people who work with the space program know, and are willing to admit, that seven people, including people they knew personally, have died, and the disaster isn't merely an accident. It's simply "the law of averages" catching up. The disaster may well have been "unthinkable", but it was always possible. In the words of an Atlanta employee who had been involved with the space program "all the way from Mercury to the first five shuttle missions".

No one has ever been able to nor wanted to let the general public know the risks astronauts were taking each time. Those who worked the Space Programs always knew.

"Realization" of the hopelessness of a search for survivors "was setting in, not only in Houston, but across the country and around the world. This resignation to the worst was perhaps best summed up in the 85th append to the forum, posted at 3:58 PM from IBM's Research Center in Yorktown, N.Y.:

I just heard a replay of a tape made by a correspondent in the VIP bleachers. A cheer when the rocket should have separated -- then a child said "Where is it?" -- then the crowd got very quiet. That says it all.

Grief

Many appends in SHUTTLE FORUM report news of the shuttle tragedy and surrounding events, especially during the first four hours. Many more appends are primarily expressive, however, and as shock disbelief, and hope gave way to confirmation and resignation, people began to express their grief. This grief was frequently expressed simply. The writer of append 7 writes from Austin, Texas at 12:52 PM that "within only a few minutes, millions share a common grief". A Kingston appender writes "" in append 28. "I am deeply depressed" adds (append 40) another Kingston employee.

Often, however, appenders express their grief in terms of the personal experiences that has made the destruction of the Challenger so painful to them. In append 6, posted at 12:44 PM, a Boulder, CO employee writes that:

I have followed the space program from the Mercury program, even when it was not so popular in the late days of the Apollo program. I have followed the shuttle program with much of the same enthusiasm and have found the idea of a reusable space craft to be very interesting. I've been disappointed lately with the schedule set backs and technical problems that the shuttle program has had but my interest has not waned.

Today's news comes as a tremendous shock. Even though I do not have any close ties to any aspect of the space program, I feel today's disaster as a deep personal loss. I have not felt this shaken since I was in Biology class in 9th grade and news came that John Kennedy had been shot. I'm not sure that I am going to be able to do any more productive work today.

This memory of childhood is similar to many appended to SHUTTLE FORUM. He has followed the space program from its inception, just like:

Perhaps the most moving expression of grief cast against a remembrance of childhood involvement in the space program comes from a scientist located at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center:

When I was a small boy, my father took me out onto the front lawn at night. We sat there in sleeping bags, waiting, watching, until at last, a new star peeked over the horizon and lazily crossed the sky. It was Echo, one of the first satellites. He filled me with a love and respect for the space program, and for science, and technology. In large part, that's why I do what I do today. I watched every manned launch since then, until these last couple of shuttle flights; it was actually becoming mundane for me.

Now this. I feel as if someone very close to me has died. The world just isn't supposed to work like this.

Personal Grief ...

The grief people are expressing is personal, and it is felt deeply. The Boulder, CO writer of append 6 likens it to the way he felt when "I was in Biology class in 9th grade and news came that John Kennedy had been shot." There are other Kennedy references in the forum as well. In append 43 we learn from a Tucson, AZ contributor that:

... the announcement about the shuttle came over the P.A. system. It reminded me of another day back in 1963 when I sat in my third-grade class and watched my teacher burst into tears when they announced that President Kennedy had been shot.

I didn't understand what had happened then, or the historical implications it would later produce. But no one in the classroom moved, or blinked. We just sat, stunned, and wondered when an adult would explain to us what was happening.

Right now, I wish I was that innocent age again. Sometimes not being able to comprehend a tragedy is the only thing that stops the pain...and the grief.

And in append 135, the last real append to SHUTTLE FORUM, a British contributor writes:
As a European, may I share your grief, and add my own to it. I was studying for my finals the night Jack Kennedy was shot. (It was night in London when the news came through.) Everybody in my college library cried.

And now, a week after this terrible tragedy, here in the office, I just read this forum. I couldn't believe the news when I got home last week, and saw the video pictures. I cried then, I'm crying now. Words cannot express such sorrow.

But simply comparing one event to another doesn't capture the depth of what people are feeling. For one Yorktown, NY appender, there are "no words to express the shock and grief."

... or Overreaction?

Ultimately, the contributors to the SHUTTLE FORUM may have been too successful in communicating their feelings. Late in the forum (append 117 on February 2nd), a contributor from Kingston, N.Y. compares the shuttle accident with other disasters, and asserts that people have blown the event out of proportion. Did it, he wondered, deserve more attention than a "recent air disaster which claimed the lives of 248 American soldiers", a disaster which, for a period of time, he feared had claimed the life of his oldest son? He thought not.

A contributor from Toronto, Canada, writing in append 125 on February 3rd, responds by noting that:

There are two kinds of people: Ordinary and extra-ordinary. Everyone is BOTH. When the plane crashed and 248 American military lives were lost, a great many people grieved. They grieved because, to them, the dead had been extra-ordinary people (father/mother, daughter/son, husband/wife, friend/peer) to the rest of us they were ordinary people - we felt saddened by their deaths but got on with our lives. If we took each death to heart with deep grief we would not be able to endure the pain. When a John Kennedy, a John Lennon, a Rock Hudson, or an astronaut dies many more people grieve because that person was *known* to us; was, for us, *extra-ordinary*. They may have been extra-ordinary because they were part of media-hype or had special talents or were involved in projects that caught the masses imagination, but they were the thing that ordinary people always need...they were HEROES (not deities).

When a hero dies - it is news. When a hero dies suddenly - it is shocking news. When several heroes die suddenly - it is a national disaster and NEWS.

The personal terms in which people describe the origins of their grief shows clearly why the astronauts of the shuttle Challenger fell in the extra-ordinary category for so many people. These astronauts were living the dreams of people who cared about the future of the space program and who would have jumped, if they had the chance, at the opportunity to be aboard this flight. In the words of a Boca Raton, Florida appender, "I still want to be an astronaut when I grow up."

Other Sources of Personal Involvement

Kennedy and childhood memories of the space program are not the only personal base which people used as they attempted to share the depth of their grief. Other sources include:

People are "shocked", "saddened", and even "devastated" by the events of the day. They feel the event "in what is for many, a personal way." The sources that of this personal involvement are varied, ranging from a "sympathy" for the children who watched the event to a feeling of direct responsibility "to safely oversee" the astronauts "journey." Everyone may not feel things as keenly as the Boca Raton contributor for whom "my 'sons and daughters' DID die", but many people felt the event not just as a tragedy, but as a personal tragedy, rooted in distinctly individual, yet strikingly common, experiences.

A Sense of Community

In the midst of this common experience, a new kind of community developed between contributors to, and readers of, the forum. As people disclosed their experiences, dreams, beliefs, and grief, they discovered other people who had similar experiences, similar dreams and beliefs, the same grief. As they discovered this bond, they began to express it, starting at append 47, almost two and a half hours after SHUTTLE FORUM starts:

Subject: Sadness

How can something so distant feel so personal. I agree with the previous append likening this to the Kennedy assassination. I have not worked with the space program since 1974, yet I feel as if I were still in the midst of it all.

And somehow, having the teacher on board was like taking a part of me up. And I just lost that part of me. God, how it hurts.

My thanks to whoever started this forum. Seeing the reactions of others and having a place to express what I am feeling sure helps. I don't feel alone in my grief.

In this append a contributor in Santa Teresa, CA, shares his feelings about the accident, and then his reaction to the SHUTTLE FORUM. The tragedy "hurts", but the "reactions of others" as expressed in the forum "helps." Similar sentiments are expressed again and again as the forum continues:

Clearly, SHUTTLE FORUM was more than just a place to share news and express grief. It was a place to "get in touch with my grief"; "to keep what little of myself was still together, together"; "to see the vast number of people who have felt the same things I have felt since the tragedy"; to complete one's "catharsis" in the presence of others that felt the same thing. A Yorktown contributor, writing in append 119, may have said it best:

The other uplifting image was the outpouring of feeling in this forum. ... I hadn't supposed that many other IBMers shared my perceptions of the space frontier. They might enthuse over the technical problems, but catch the poetry of it? Romanticize? Put it in the larger context of human destiny? It didn't seem in character. Well, now we know. There are even people down the hall from me or in the next corridor -- on the same project, even -- contributing to this forum, and I never would have guessed.

Regular participants in the IBMPC conferencing facility already considered themselves a community long before there was a SHUTTLE FORUM. Even when participants had never met each other except through the words of various appends, they felt they knew each other. The experience of meeting someone for the first time that one had known for a long time was a constant source of curiosity, and the experience of meeting one or more of the "royal family" of conference administrators appeared to leave some IBMPC participants in awe.

Yet SHUTTLE FORUM reformed that community, made people aware that their coparticipants in this computer conference shared more than just an interest in computers. People discovered that other people felt things they didn't expect them to. People who seemed to care only about technical issues "romanticized", put things "in the larger context of human destiny", caught "the poetry of" things. Importantly, those people weren't simply spread out across the country and around the world. They were also "down the hall or in the next corridor -- on the same project even."

A Fitting Memorial

Recounting the events of SHUTTLE FORUM as a progression from news to disbelief to confirmation to hope to hopelessness to grief to community oversimplifies a great deal that happened. First, there was no simple progression. Grief, hope, disbelief, hopelessness, and hard news were all mixed together. The focus of the content changed from append to append. Indeed, the focus often changed several times within the span of a single append. Second, there were other themes that found expression as the forum progressed. In addition to the news, there was speculation. Rumors were started. Fortunately, there was also hard information to control the rumors, and stern injunctions (many of them from participants) that people not speculate wildly. There was a certain amount of media bashing, especially for the broadcast of Christa McAuliffe parents' moment of realization. There were even events to find consolation in, including the childbirth class that a Lexington, KY man would be attending the evening of the disaster (append 15).

In the late stages of SHUTTLE FORUM, the attention of many participants would turn to identifying possible tributes to the Challenger and its crew. There were proposals of new space shuttles, names for the newly discovered moons of Uranus, and other tributes. There was even a poem was published in the forum in tribute to "these seven strangers' sudden end" (append 93 by a contributor in Santa Teresa. In the midst of these suggestions, an Atlanta contributor suggests, in append 92, that the memorial has already been built:

No words can adequately express the feelings this tragic event has brought upon us all--most every conceivable thought has been set down in this forum. Our thanks to the Shuttle Forum initiator.

I printed a copy of the Forum and brought it home...and placed it with my other Space mementoes--hopefully the only memento I will ever place there with such regret.

Without doubt, Tuesday and Wednesday's Appenders could have laid down no greater tribute to Challenger's crew. You all did a marvelous job for the rest of us.

Having spent 24 years in the Federal Systems Division--all the way from Mercury to the first five Shuttle Missions--I was deeply moved by this event and the words and thoughts Appenders set down.

For this appender, SHUTTLE FORUM is already a memorial, one to be cherished along with the other momentos of his years of participation in the space program. In his words, the early appenders to SHUTTLE FORUM "could have laid down no greater tribute to Challenger's crew" than the words and thoughts that had already been contributed. This idea is picked up and extended by a Kingston, NY contributor in append 101:

I understand that the intention is to delete this forum after a short time. I'd like to ask the owners to reconsider this decision. I'd like to see the forum renamed SHUTTLE MEMORIAL and kept permanently as a valuable historical record of both the computer conferencing and IBM community at times of great national tragedy.

This idea captures the imagination of a number of subsequent appenders, including a contributor from Hawthorne, NY who proclaims it "An excellent idea!" in append 119. This sentiment is made reality by an IBMPC conference administrator in the append that closes SHUTTLE FORUM:

SHUTTLE PCFORUM is closed for new appends from noon Tuesday, February 5, 1986. If new official information is available from Houston management, we will append it here. At some time in the future, we will place it in the IBMPC ARCHIVE.

In respect for those who died, the forum will be renamed SHUTTLE MEMORIAL.

We all hope that such an exceptional forum will not be needed again for a long time to come.