This week in spaceflight history is a somber and difficult one, as the anniversaries of three major U.S. spaceflight tragedies occur within days of one another. This week, NASA paid its respects to its explorers who perished in the conquest of space with ceremonies taking place on Wednesday, Jan. 28, the 29th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Another ceremony paying tribute to these heroes was held Thursday, Jan. 29, at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
On the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 28, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and other agency officials took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Washington, D.C.’s Arlington National Cemetery. The commander of Apollo 1, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and crew mate Roger B. Chaffee are buried at this site. Shortly after this tribute was held, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center held a remembrance ceremony at the Space Mirror Memorial, located on the grounds of the Visitor Complex.
The center’s Deputy Director Janet Petro led this tribute by encouraging guests to reflect on lessons learned, leading off with: “We are laying a wreath here today at this Astronaut Memorial. We reflect on our fallen heroes, the ultimate sacrifice that they made, and the hard lessons we’ve learned in the spirit of space exploration. We think about what it is we could have done differently as individuals, as leaders, as an organization, and as an agency to prevent these tragedies. Most importantly, we think about what we can do to prevent future ones today.”
On Thursday, Jan. 29, at 9 a.m. CST (10 a.m. EST), a candle-lighting ceremony was held at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center, led by center director Patrick Scheuermann and former shuttle astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson.
The 48th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed its crew consisting of Grissom, Chaffee, and Gemini 4’s Edward H. White II (the first U.S. astronaut to make a “spacewalk”), fell on Tuesday, Jan. 27. The fire was believed to have been caused by an unknown ignition source, which sparked a flash fire inside a pure oxygen environment. On Tuesday, a tribute was held at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Pad 34, where the fire occurred in 1967. On a more positive note, the race for the Moon also continued from the pad, as Apollo 7 resumed the lunar program with its successful launch and mission in late 1968.
The 29th anniversary of the Challenger (STS-51L) disaster, which killed its crew of seven (Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Judy Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, Ellison Onizuka, and first “Teacher in Space” Christa McAuliffe), fell on Wednesday, Jan. 28. The culprit for this tragedy was due to sub-freezing temperatures compromising O-ring seals on one of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRB), ultimately resulting in the catastrophic breakup of the orbiter stack 72 seconds following launch.
The 12th anniversary of the STS-107 reentry accident will fall on Saturday, Feb. 1. Another crew of seven (Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, and Ilan Ramon) were lost as the space shuttle orbiter Columbia broke apart during reentry. The cause for this tragedy was traced to a piece of external tank foam striking the leading edge of the orbiter’s left wing during launch, causing a breach in the shuttle’s critical thermal protection system.
In addition to the astronauts lost during these accidents, the Space Mirror memorial also pays tributes to lives lost during service to NASA and the astronaut program. Other key figures memorialized include Ted Freeman, Robert Lawrence (MOL astronaut), Charles Bassett II, Elliot See Jr., Clifton “CC” Williams Jr., Michael Adams (X-15), and Manley “Sonny” Carter.
The White House released its own statement acknowledging NASA’s Day of Remembrance, which read in part: “ … Despite the dangers, we continue to reach for the stars, study the wonders of the universe, and learn more about the planet we call home. As a country, we support the innovators hard at work on the next generation of cutting-edge research and innovation. We seek to inspire the young people pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. From new partnerships with private industry to the development of groundbreaking inventions that Americans will take with them into the Solar System and eventually to Mars, we will continue our journey of discovery.”
While the anniversaries come once a year and the years may recede far in the distance, the contributions of these U.S. pioneers continue to inspire new generations of space explorers, ensuring that their lives will always be remembered. In addition, lessons learned from these incidents remind aerospace personnel, engineers, scientists, and space watchers alike that indeed “a rough road leads to the stars.”
Many thanks to Talia Landman for her contributions to this article.