NASA remembers three space tragedies
Today, Jan. 26, 2017, NASA held its annual Day of Remembrance to honor astronauts lost on three missions, as well as other agency members who lost their lives for the cause of space exploration.
The end of January and the beginning of February mark several anniversaries for the U.S. space program:
- Jan. 27 is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that took the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.
- Jan. 28 is the 31st anniversary of the Challenger accident (STS-51L) that killed Frank Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.
- Feb. 1 is the 14th anniversary of the Columbia disaster (STS-107) that killed Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.
At the Astronaut Memorial Foundation’s Center for Space Education at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, NASA hosted a Day of Remembrance in memory of the crews of all three doomed spacecraft. The event included speakers, videos, and montages of the fallen astronauts.
“Every year at this time, NASA remembers all of our brave family members we’ve lost and have given everything, the full sacrifice to advance this mission of exploration that we believe in, that humanity believes in so much,” said Robert Lightfoot, acting NASA administrator. “[It’s] particularly poignant this year because it marks 50 years since Apollo 1.”
Lightfoot said NASA will never forget Apollo 1 and the agency owes a great debt to them for what their tragedy taught and how the agency needs to continue exploring space. He echoed those thoughts for the crews of STS-51-L and STS-107.
“For us, they exemplify the pioneering spirit that helped get us where we are today, and we’ll build off that spirit as we continue to push humans further and further into space. They will not be forgotten. Godspeed Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia, and all the members of our family who have fallen for us in the line of duty here at NASA.”
After the ceremony, the families of the fallen astronauts placed a memorial wreath at the Space Mirror Memorial.
Although the three disasters took place decades apart and in three different eras of space exploration – the first during the race to the Moon, the second in the formative years of the Space Shuttle, and the third in the era of the International Space Station – they each had one thing in common: they were preventable.
In the case of Apollo 1 in 1967, North American Aviation, the manufacturer of the Apollo spacecraft, had repeatedly warned NASA about the dangers of high-pressure testing in a 100 percent pure oxygen environment.
During a “plugs-out” test to determine if the spacecraft could operate nominally on its internal power, the spacecraft was pressurized to 2 pounds per square inch higher than the outside 16.7 pounds per square inch. It was considered a safe and routine procedure.
During the test, a spark occurred and caused a fire. Because of the high pressure inside, and rising pressure due to the fire, the crew was unable to open the inward opening hatch.
The 1986 Challenger disaster resulted in the first in-flight fatalities for a NASA mission.
In the early Shuttle program, it was known well in advance the O-rings in the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) were prone to erode, and even fail, during launch. Each time a launch went off successfully despite the problem, the extent of damage to the O-rings became more and more acceptable.
On the morning of the launch, engineers warned the temperature was too cold, and Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, the designer of the SRBs, strenuously warned of the danger and was convinced any attempt to launch that morning would be a disaster.
The vehicle launched at 11:38 a.m. EST (16:38 GMT) Jan. 28, 1986, from Launch Complex 39B. About 73 seconds later, at an altitude of 48,000 feet (15 kilometers), the spacecraft broke apart after an O-ring in the right SRB failed and burned the strut holding it to the external tank.
By the time of the Columbia disaster in 2003, the problem of falling foam during launch was well known. The foam strike which doomed Columbia was caught on camera, and engineers were deeply concerned that the tiles on the orbiter’s sensitive underside were compromised. But communication breakdowns within NASA prevented their concerns from reaching the Mission Management Team’s ears.
Although Columbia could not have been saved, a rescue mission could conceivably have been launched, although it would have been very difficult at the time. Subsequent Shuttle missions were required to have a second Shuttle prepared to launch on a rescue mission if needed.
As this mission was a stand-alone science mission, it was in a different orbit than the International Space Station, and therefore could not have used the outpost as a safe-haven. Subsequent missions after STS-107, save one, all went to the ISS.
The one flight that didn’t, Atlantis‘ STS-125 flight in May 2009, was a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. To expedite any potential rescue mission, two orbiters were processed and placed on the two KSC launch pads.
STS-400, as the rescue flight was manifested as, would have been flown by the Space Shuttle Endeavour. However, that mission was never needed. After the successful landing of STS-125, Endeavour was reprocessed for STS-127.
All three of these accidents made clear the inherent risk associated with human spaceflight. Space travel is difficult and dangerous, and incredibly complex.
The keynote speaker for the Day of Remembrance event was former Apollo astronaut Michael Collins. He orbited the Moon in 1969 during Apollo 11 while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were conducting their lunar landing and subsequent moonwalk.
“Without Apollo 1 and the lessons learned from it, in all probability, such a fire would have taken place later in flight, and not only the crew, but the entire spacecraft would have been lost,” Collins said. “NASA with no machinery to examine could only guess at the causes and how to prevent still another occurrence. Yes, Apollo 1 did cause three deaths. But I believe it did save more than three later.”
Collins said the accident slowed the Apollo program down for a year or so, but probably gained it more than a year in time because of increased reliability that permitted flight scheduling later on. He said that without the accident, it was likely NASA would not have landed on the Moon as the president had wished by the end of the decade.
“We’ve chosen a tough business, an unforgiving business,” Lightfoot said. “But the reward for that is the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement for what we learn as human beings.”
Lightfoot said it is written in the souls and DNA of humans to continue the journey of space exploration.
“These folks committed everything to that journey and we should learn from that and make sure we don’t repeat those mistakes going forward,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot noted in his speech the memorial plaque at Launch Complex 34, where the Apollo 1 accident had occurred. It reads: “Remember them not for how they died, but for those ideals for which they lived.”
Video courtesy of NASA
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.