Opinion: Ad astra per aspera – Do I have a role in this shared journey to the stars? Do you?
Lieutenant Colonel (USAF) Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Commander of the ill-fated Apollo/Saturn 204 mission (renamed Apollo One following its fateful January 27, 1967, fire), once wrote, “If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”
The caveat to that, if I’m permitted to suggest an arm’s length interpretation, is that the Commander was never suggesting that people and the program should simply ‘accept it’ and maintain their current course and speed, but rather that there was an expectation that all involved would pause to research, uncover, learn, understand, grow, and only then resume forward motion.
In essence, and greatly summarized, that is what happened immediately following the fire. The spacecraft designs were taken back to the drawing board for wholesale re-engineering; systems and processes throughout the program were audited, reviewed and re-reviewed; in the realm of acknowledging the emotional and mental aspects, Gene Kranz soulfully captured the heart-wrenching realities of the situation in what would become famously known as “The Kranz Dictum”:
Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.
From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent’. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.
At times painfully raw, all very truthful and yet ultimately inspiring and directing, all about a tough topic that needed calling out and leaning into. It is, of course, common knowledge that many lessons were learned as a result of that night 49 years ago, leading to significant adjustments being made to bring the Agency, its people, and the Apollo program as a whole, back on track following the horrible AS-204 loss – heck, in just short of 30 months from the darkness of that defining night in 1967, America had both set foot on and subsequently returned from the Moon.
As sure as I am about the impact of the two most recent American loss-of-life mission failures (Challenger and Columbia), about how they became defining moments in our journey as a space-faring race, there is no question in my mind that in the days following the loss of Apollo One, people of all walks of life and levels of involvement in the Apollo program would have processed and mentally engraved their senses of sadness, frustration, anger and ultimately their resolve to do whatever it would take to honor the sacrifice of Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – but this deep, organic appreciation for what happened, how it came to happen and what needed to be done differently in the future was limited to… those alive and mature enough at the time to understand what had just happened.
At 43 years old, I’m not in that group – I wouldn’t be born for another five-and-a-half years and I don’t believe that I would be capable of truly forming or ‘learning’ life lessons from such a significant (but distant) event for at least ten years. I believe that a very real risk exists, that in the years between each generation a dangerous gap forms, separating 1) the true tragedy of events such as each of these, 2) the fundamental principles involved, and 3) the matured mindsets that came from knowing firsthand the price which had been paid for the decisions of the past, from the minds and experiences of the younger generation. By way of example, it is quite possible that as a result of NASA-TV’s coverage of tomorrow’s Day of Remembrance ceremony from Kennedy Space Center (begins 10:00 a.m. EST, Thursday January 28), some 7-year-old child may come to ask her 32-year-old parent about Challenger and what happened that day – to which the parent will only be able to share what he or she has read, heard, and learned from others. But what if that 32-year-old parent didn’t happen to have access to those lessons? What if the 7-year old doesn’t come to discover and learn (more than from just a pop-culture level) the importance of these loss-of-life tragedies?
Today’s youth, those loosely captured between the ages of 5 and 20, are destined to grow to become the engineers, the test pilots, the medical scientists, the geologists, the manufacturing staff, the materials researchers, the leaders, and the mission support staff that will form the new face of space, the leading edge of our push to set foot on Mars – and beyond. But the youngest of this cohort will have never watched – not on TV, not across the Internet, and most certainly not in person – a live countdown to launch of a Space Shuttle mission, just as I missed out on the opportunity to meaningfully participate in any real-time Apollo-era missions. But that’s the reality of life and the progress of time – that these gaps exist between each of our life experiences (and the subsequent self-generated observations) and the observations and lessons that come to us from others, from those who have travelled the paths themselves, or maybe from recordings, writings or intermediaries.
Which brings me to the overriding question: given that I am not an astronaut, not a scientist, and I am most certainly not a member of any engineering profession, do I still have a role in moving us forward through our successes and our difficulties, ultimately to land ourselves among the stars? If so – what is it, and is it possible that you might have a role, too?
After great reflection and consideration, I have identified that (for now) my greatest possible contribution to the advancement of human spaceflight is… to learn. Learn all that I can, firsthand, from those that lived and worked these missions. Learn about the people, the culture, the resources, and the challenges of the days in question. Learn about the intent and the ‘whys’, learn about the dreams, the highs, and the lows. Learn about suffering devastating losses and learn that with the right approach and attitude, great things can come to rise from these unthinkable, horrific events. Learn how to leverage tough times like these, to inspire teams to commit to their own great recoveries while pursuing tomorrow’s dream, all the while remaining grounded and respectful toward the price paid leading up to this day.
And this is why I come to Florida on every trip – multiple times per year. To learn, to become inspired – such that I might one day inspire others through my ability to facilitate or personally share a more vibrant, rich, and passionate explanation of our common past. To be certain, I still have much to learn, much to understand and I, of course, have all sorts of growing yet to do. I strongly believe that there are critical, core lessons from each of these (and many other, less dramatic) accidents and mishaps which can be transferred to life, to business, and to our various relationships, if we just take the time to peel back the tough skin and come to understand what each has to offer.
The best part? I’m not alone. Three or four years ago this week, as I solemnly stood at the Space Mirror Memorial (located within the KSC Visitor Complex) at the approximate time that Challenger was breaking apart many years earlier, a kindred spirit was standing just a few feet away.
After our time of silent reflection had passed, we exchanged words, then names, then vehicle descriptions and license tag numbers – so that we could convoy over to the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum and meet up with others. Bob Castro and his wife, Lauchi, of Atlanta, befriended me, introduced me to others and opened more doors to research than I had ever considered possible for one day. Bob and I remain close to this day, and I am grateful for our shared respect and appreciation for honoring the accomplishments (and challenges) of our shared past.
In a similar vein, about five years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Derek Casari. Just after I finished speaking at a conference in San Francisco, having woven Apollo 13 squarely into the middle of my “Troubleshooting computer problems, remotely” session, he introduced himself and we similarly hit it right off. He then played a role in unlocking my ability to host a table at Gene Cernan’s Apollo 17 40th Anniversary dinner, where I was able to surprise and invite two teens (Astronaut Abby and a less public but very studious chap from California) to come and meet, dine with, and discuss life beyond low-Earth orbit.
The tricky question is then, to what degree will these first-hand experiences and less-documented details about our program’s great tragedies (and subsequent recoveries) survive the inevitable aging and death of the group of people with this perhaps obscure but expensive to re-learn knowledge, the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo-Shuttle Generation? Who is investing the time, some of our first-world resources and most importantly in this day and age – some focus, to preserve, memorialize, and honor those who have paid the ultimate price in our pursuit of the stars?
By attending, watching, or sharing details about this week’s memorial events, by respectfully sharing with others how you feel about the various events and losses, by patiently listening while others do the same (even if you don’t necessarily share the same views), by simply learning and sharing the facts about our missions – both successful and tragically unsuccessful – this will ensure that the sacrifices made along the way are able to yield a full and bountiful return to us all, through organized learning events and youth outreach organizations like The Mars Generation. (Full disclosure, I volunteer with and donate some of my frequent flier miles to help The Mars Generation offer 100 percent full scholarships to Space Camp for youth with dreams but not the means. Additional donors welcome.)
Through my many personal discussions with Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle-era Astronauts, program managers, contractors, USAF personnel, and even the families of lost Astronauts, I find that my personal growth has sped up, the more I’ve slowed down… to listen and intently reflect on what I’ve heard, seen, touched, or photographed.
Because I wasn’t alive 49 years ago today, I have no first-hand knowledge of the Apollo One fire – but I still know that it was an awful tragedy. One that if not learned, discussed, and memorialized by today’s generation will perhaps cause it to be even less known by the next. And that, I strongly believe, is too expensive a scenario for me to quietly contemplate from the sidelines. And I hope that I’m not alone.
Video courtesy of Space Technology
This is an editorial based on the opinions of the author and does not, necessarily, reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider.
Sean Costello is a technology professional who also researches, writes about and speaks publicly on the inspiring lessons within international space flight program. Prior to joining SpaceFlight Insider in early 2014, Costello was a freelance photographer and correspondent covering shuttle-era Kennedy Space Center launches for various radio and print news organizations.