Take Time to Remember Our Heroes…

Article written: 28 Jan , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

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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…

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.

Apollo 1 Crew. Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee.

Apollo 1 Crew. Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee.

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.

All that remains of the original Pad 34 complex where Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee lost their lives in a pad fire in 1967. Image credit Dave Reneke

All that remains of the original Pad 34 complex where Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee lost their lives in a pad fire in 1967. Image credit Dave Reneke

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.

Space Shuttle Challenger seconds before it exploded killing all seven crew on board.

Space Shuttle Challenger seconds before it exploded killing all seven crew on board.

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.


Challenger Crew - The crew of STS-51-L: Front row from left, Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair. Back row from left, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judith Resnik.

Challenger Crew - The crew of STS-51-L: Front row from left, Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair. Back row from left, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judith Resnik.

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.


A single film frame of the Space Shuttle Columbia Breaking over Texas on February 1, 2003.

A single film frame of the Space Shuttle Columbia Breaking over Texas on 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.’

Coumbia Crew - On February 1, 2003, after a 16-day scientific mission, space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its reentry into the Earth's atmosphere, killing astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and the first Israeli astronaut in space, Ilan Ramon.

Coumbia Crew - On February 1, 2003, after a 16-day scientific mission, space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its reentry into the Earth's atmosphere, killing astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and the first Israeli astronaut in space, Ilan Ramon.

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.


Evelyn Husband giving a stirring speech at a remembrance ceremony at Kennedy Space Centre in February 2008. Image credit Dave Reneke

Evelyn Husband giving a stirring speech at a remembrance ceremony at Kennedy Space Centre in February 2008. Image credit Dave Reneke

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.


13 Responses

  1. Christopher Ambler says

    An image that I took a couple years ago at the KSC –

  2. CVBruce says

    Hi,

    I just wanted to mention that in the harbor at Long Beach, CA there are four man made islands, three of which are named after the Apollo 1 astronauts. The fourth island is named after Theodore Freeman, an astronaut that died in a 1964 training accident.

  3. Member

    please share your images and rememberances… if you cannot get the image to appear, feel free to send it to my email and i will post it for you!

  4. John M. says

    Thanks for that very thoughtful retrospective. I had no idea these three anniversaries were that close together.

  5. Astrofiend says

    Very nice piece Tammy, and we’ll never forget their legacy – it is firmly the stuff of legend and an inspiration to millions.

    Let us hope that space agencies around the world learn from these disasters – that cost cutting at the expense of attention to detail, sound design principles and an all encompassing philosophy of risk minimisation will cause this to happen again and again.

    Reading Richard Feynman’s report to the committee investigating the challenger disaster is enlightening, and its findings are so familiar (even in other organisations): middle management having a complete and utter disconnect with the people ‘on the ground’ and those in the know. Perfectly illustrated by this line – “While Columbia was still in orbit, some engineers suspected damage, but NASA managers limited the investigation on the grounds that any risks were ‘acceptable.’ ”

    I would blame the managers (and partially do), but this sort of lax culture must be derived from the very top – from management at the highest levels, and the government itself.

    One has to wonder what role inadequate funding plays in such tragedies. Going to space is inherently dangerous, but with a number of successful flights going up it becomes too easy to delude one’s self that it is now ‘routine’ and that sparing no expense to ensure safety is not really necessary these days. Such sad events seem to almost be required from time to time to smash that delusion once more, at least for a while…

  6. Yael Dragwyla says

    Ave atque vale — I remember the Apollo I catastrophe in 1967. I was out with a friend at a drive-in movie when the news came over the speakers. I started crying. I still do whenever I am reminded of that awful night. The destruction of the two Shuttles was just as bad, and, like the end of Apollo I, will be with me until I die. Yet we are still reaching for the stars. The Russians have undergone numerous space-related disasters, but are still out there, working to realize the Dream. India, China, and other nations are now on board, too. Let’s not let the dreams of the Apollo I and the two shuttle crews die. Ad astra!

  7. Fermatti says

    I hope the one important thing we take away from the Apollo 1 event is that they did NOT give up on sending men to the Moon and they did it, within the timeframe JFK originally declared.

    If we held on to that spirit, we would have lunar and Mars bases by now and a real space station that actually does something and sends humans on expeditions into the rest of the Solar System.

    Hopefully it is not too late yet.

  8. Timmy says

    “If we die, do not mourn for us. This is a risky business we’re in, and we accept those risks. The space program is too valuable to thiscountry to be halted for too long if a disaster should ever happen.”

    – Gus Grissom, three weeks before he was killed in the Apollo 1 fire.

    “Sacrifices must be made.”

    — Otto Lilienthal, one of the main sources of inspiration for the Wright brothers; this was a favorite phrase. He died August 10, 1896 from injuries sustained two days earlier in a crash of one of his hang gliders.

    German: “Opfer mussen gebracht werden.”

  9. Tech Roach says

    I saw a TV show where they say that the killing of Grissom and crew was part of a conspiracy theory and shyt. I don’t buy it though.

  10. Member

    One of my favorite memories of Gus Grissom from the NASA History Records:

    Initially, Gus wanted to name his spacecraft Wapasha after a Native American tribe that had lived in Grissom’s home state of Indiana. “Then some smart joker pointed out that surer than shooting, our spacecraft would be dubbed The Wabash Cannon Ball. Well, my Dad was working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and I wasn’t too sure just how he’d take to The Wabash Cannon Ball. How would he explain that one to his pals on the B & O?” Wapasha got scratched off the list of prospective names and Grissom began a new search. The Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown provided him with a source of inspiration. With the loss of Liberty Bell still on his mind, Gus decided to poke fun at the whole incident. Molly Brown had been strong, reliable and most importantly, unsinkable. It was a perfect name for Liberty Bell’s successor. However, some of Grissom’s bosses insisted that he choose a more respectable name. Gus replied, “How about the Titanic?” It was clear that Grissom was not going to back down on this one. Given a choice of Molly Brown or Titanic, disgruntled officials backed off. Without further ado, Gemini-Titan 3 became known as Molly Brown.

  11. robby says

    I am so happy that plaques and other momentos are made to to be preserved to honor people who was killed in humans quest to go into the very dangerous outer space

  12. wandering by says

    Nice article Tammy, as always.

    I have enormus respect for the people who put themselves in harm’s way and into situations where the risk mitigation strategy is often only that the event not occur, all to advance our collective knowledge.

    “A man’s reach should exceed beyond his grasp” Robert Browning

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