The final week of January and first week of February is a very somber time for NASA. It is the anniversaries of the Apollo 1 accident, the Challenger accident, and the Columbia accident. In these past couple weeks, NASA and many other branches of the space program reflect on the lives of the astronauts lost, along with other men and women who gave their lives in the pursuit of adventure. Jan. 31 is recognized as NASA’s day of remembrance.
On Jan. 27, 1967, veteran astronaut Gus Grissom, first American spacewalker Edward White, and rookie Roger Chaffee were performing a pre-launch pad test, a normal procedure before every mission. Once they were sealed in the capsule, there was a spark, and a fire broke out in the highly oxygenated capsule, killing all three in less than a minute. A later investigation led engineers to find a major design flaw and built a safer module, ultimately leading to safer Apollo missions to the moon.
Just nineteen years later on Jan. 28, 1987, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just seventy-three seconds after launch of STS-51 due to a damaged ring on one of the solid rocket boosters used to launch the shuttle into space. The damage came from the cold weather during the week of the launch. It took the lives of all seven crewmen including Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space.
More recently on Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia, the oldest shuttle in the fleet, lost contact with mission control just sixteen minutes before landing STS-107. The shuttle broke up over multiple states due to a piece of foam from the external tank falling and tearing a hole in one of the shuttle’s wings. Because of the accident, a new protocol for the shuttle to do a complete 360-degree turn over its nose before docking with the International Space Station was put into practice to check for any problems with the orbiter’s exterior.
A memorial plaque stands at the dismantled Launch Complex 34 where the tragic accident occurred reading, “Remember them not for how they died, but for those ideals in which they lived.” About forty-five percent of the current employees at NASA were not there when the Columbia disaster happened. The program hopes to take responsibility for their future astronauts as they enter a new era of spaceflight. NASA will never forget those they have lost since the beginning and their contributions to further our journey into the final frontier.