Today is NASA’s Day of Remembrance, a occasion to recall the seventeen astronauts who have died in pursuit of space exploration. The anniversaries of each accident — Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia — fall eerily close together, and give us recourse to stop and think about the cost of traveling beyond our planet.
On January 27, 1967, the Apollo 1 crew was killed when a fire broke out in the command module during a routine prelaunch test. Engineers outside the spacecraft were unable to open the hatch and the crew died of asphyxiation.
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Commander Gus Grissom was one of NASA’s first astronauts, a veteran of the Mercury and Gemini programs. Senior pilot Ed White was a Gemini veteran already in the history books as the first American to complete extra-vehicular activity, more commonly known as a spacewalk. The mission’s pilot was Roger Chaffee, a rookie whose first flight would be Apollo 1.
On January 28, 1986, the NASA’s Shuttle program experienced its first major setback. Just 73 seconds after the launch of STS-51, one of the external booster rockets failed. A faulty o-ring didn’t make a tight seal over one of the joints and a jet of hot flame escaped. This breached the external fuel tank, allowing the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen it contained to come into contact. The fuel ignited and the tank exploded. The force ripped the Challenger orbiter apart, killing the crew of seven.
Commander Dick Scobee, Mission Specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judith Resnick, as well as Pilot Michael Smith were veteran astronauts. Payload specialist Gregory Jarvis was making his first flight into space, as was Christa McAuliffe. McAuliffe, the most recognizable member of the crew, was part of NASA’s Teacher in Space program. Her participation on the flight symbolized the accessibility of space and was an inspiration to children. Millions of students across the nation had followed her story and saw the disaster unfold on live television.
On February 1, 2003, the orbiter Columbia disintegrated during reentry; NASA lost contact with the crew just 16 minutes before its planned landing. A piece of foam had fallen from one of the external solid rocket boosters during launch, tearing a hole in the orbiter’s wing. With its structural integrity compromised, the forces of reentry became too great, and the spacecraft fell apart. None of the crew survived.
Commander Rick husband was a veteran astronaut, as were Mission Specialists Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla and Michael Anderson. The rest of the crew made their first spaceflight on the STS-107 mission: Pilot Willie McCool, Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon and Mission Specialists Laurel Salton Clark and David Brown.
The very thin silver lining, and what we should bear in mind as we mourn fallen astronauts, is that NASA has learned from these experiences. The sacrifices these men and women have made has made spaceflight safer. Risk is a inescapable part of human space exploration, but that doesn’t make it not worthwhile.
Gus Grissom serendipitously wrote his memoirs during the Gemini program, and address the risk inherent in spaceflight in his closing paragraph. I can think of no better words, and so I’ll let Grissom set the tone we ought to take when remembering those lost in pursuit of space exploration: “There will be risks, as there are in any experimental program, and sooner or later, inevitably, we’re going to run head-on into the law of averages and lose somebody. I hope this never happens… but if it does, I hope the American people won’t feel it’s too high a price to pay for our space program.”