As we go through our busy, every day lives, we scan the headlines in search of news. We pick up this story and that one, filing it away as part of who we are and what has happened in the world. Once in a great while we might take it back out and look at it again, but all too often we tend to forget as time goes on. Let’s change that today…
The era in which I grew up in worshipped astronauts as heroes. We didn’t see it as just another speciality job – or just another routine mission. These men, and eventually women, became larger than life. Human beings willing to take risks above and beyond the ordinary to expand our knowledge and our capabilities as a species. While we sit here comfy and cosy at our desks reading the daily space news, they orbit high above the Earth. Where we once took our daily drive to our factory jobs, they climbed inside experimental spacecraft. When the school bus drops our children off, the teachers go home to their every day lives, too. But not all of them, my friends…
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Dave Reneke reminds us that the astronauts paid the ultimate price.
“As fate would have it, the tragedies that killed three Apollo astronauts and two space shuttle crews have anniversaries less than a week apart. Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967, Challenger on January 28, 1986, and Columbia on February 1, 2003. The first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 1, was scheduled for launch on 21 February 1967 at Cape Kennedy’s pad 34. Commander Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were the flight crew. NASA, preparing for a future moon landing, knew this shakedown flight was a big step in that direction. Engineers, ground personnel and flight controllers were eager for this bird to fly.
All checks had been made and confidence was high – however, Apollo 1 was an accident waiting to happen. A few weeks before launch the crew were 5 1/2 hours into a simulated countdown on 27 January 1967 at the Kennedy Space Centre when White cried, “Fire!” Chafee shouted, “We’re burning up.” In the oxygen-saturated cabin 70 metres in the air atop the Saturn IB rocket at Pad 34, White’s hand was seen trying to blow the hatch. It wouldn’t budge. “If White couldn’t get that hatch off, no one could,” astronaut Frank Borman said later.
Astronauts and their loved ones were in shock. Test pilots died while in the air, no one at NASA had prepared them for an accident on the ground. One of the original Mercury-7 astronauts of 1959, Grissom was 40 years old on the day of the Apollo 1 fire. White at 36 years of age had been pilot for the Gemini 4 mission during which he became the first American to walk in space. Selected as an astronaut in 1963, Chaffee was training for his first spaceflight. He was just 31 years of age.
An investigation later revealed major flaws in almost all aspects of the Apollo capsule’s design and construction. Investigators attributed a chafed wire underneath Grissom’s seat as sparking the inferno. With a great whoosh, like the sound of an oven being lit, the pure O2 in the cabin made every combustible item in the ship burn with super intensity. At the same time, no oxygen was left to breathe. The three astronauts were trapped in their melted suit material, fused with the charred nylon from the inside of the spacecraft. To remove the hatch, five rescuers struggled in thick smoke, each forced to make several trips in order to reach breathable air. Nothing could be done, it was simply too late!
Astronaut Frank Borman, a member of the investigating team, listened to the tape of his friends’ screams and felt himself becoming increasingly angrier with every cry for help he heard. Everywhere he and the rest of the investigation committee looked, they found sloppy workmanship by both the contractor and by NASA. Borman decided that he was going to do whatever it took to make sure the Apollo spacecraft flew again. And when it did, it would be the safest spacecraft ever built.
As a result, NASA abandoned the oxygen-rich atmosphere. More than 2,500 different items were removed and replaced with non-flammable materials. Engineers redesigned the hatch to open in 10 seconds compared to 90 seconds for the original. Borman, in his book ‘Countdown,’, described each NASA staff member who suffered depression, guilt or a breakdown as a “victim of Pad 34.” One NASA official drove onto a Houston expressway and raced his car at speeds of more than 160 kilometres an hour until the engine caught fire. Others dealt with it in their own way. The final ‘victim’ was White’s wife. She committed suicide in 1984.
NASA’s faster, better, cheaper policy had started to unravel, at the cost of human life – but a far more serious event was about to unfold as we built even bigger, more complex launch vehicles.
The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster took place on the morning of January 28, 1986, when Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight. The New York Times declared the first space shuttle explosion the “worst disaster in space history.” It killed seven astronauts, including the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. She was selected by NASA from more than 11,000 applicants and was scheduled to teach two lessons from Space Shuttle Challenger in orbit. McAuliffe’s third-grade son Scott along with her parents were just some of the thousands of people watching in wonder, then horror that morning as the ship blew apart high in the air.
Some believe the crew died instantly, others believe the capsule remained intact long enough as it was falling for them to realize their fate. We’ll never know. In the aftermath of the disaster, NASA was criticized for its lack of openness with the press. Shuttle flights were suspended pending an investigation, but NASA personnel still believed in the program and wanted it to continue. After a lengthy hiatus, Shuttles eventually flew again, but disaster was to strike one more time, and it came on the morning of February 1, 2003.
The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, again killing all seven crew members. The loss of the spacecraft was a result of damage sustained during launch when a piece of foam insulation the size of a small briefcase hit the main propellant tank at launch, damaging the Shuttle’s tiles protecting it from the heat of re-entry. While Columbia was still in orbit, some engineers suspected damage, but NASA managers limited the investigation on the grounds that any risks were ‘acceptable.’
Columbia was 16 minutes from home when the 2,500 degree heat of re-entry entered the cracked left hand wing and melted the aluminium struts. It exploded 70,000 metres over Texas. “The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors,” President George Bush told the nation.
One year ago this week I flew to the USA and attended a memorial ceremony at the Kennedy Space Centre for the crew of Columbia. Among the invited guess was Evelyn Husband, wife of the shuttles’ Commander Rick Husband, who had previously piloted the first shuttle mission to dock with the International Space Station. In a stirring speech, and after all she’s been through, Evelyn expressed her earnest hope that the space program would go on. Let’s hope it does. This, they say, is the price of progress. ”
I would personally like to thank Dave Reneke for sharing his remembrance with us. As I sit here writing this story, I look around my office. Each and every wall bears a testimony of its own to the heroes of space – from pictures of mission launches and spacesuits – right down to a display of mission patches and model rockets. These heroes, be it Yuri Gagarin or Neil Armstrong, had a significant impact on my life and what I am today… Just as they may have had an impact on yours. Take the time to remember…
The world needs more heroes.