Yesterday was the first Day of Remembrance at NASA(with thanks to Michael at http://spaces.msn.com/auxumbilicus/ for pointing it out); a day set aside to commemorate the three greatest tragedies in the history of America's space program. Oddly enough they all took place within a week of each other, just many years apart. I will, herein, tell the sad stories.
Three men, picked to be the vanguard of the bold venture of putting a man on the moon, reclined in the cramped, equipment-filled command module of the first Apollo spacecraft. They were Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The date was January 27, 1967, and the task at hand was a 'plugs out' test of all on-board systems to make sure that the spacecraft would operate independently when launched the following month. The capsule was sealed, the astronauts strapped in, and all systems seemed to be operating properly. Suddenly a faulty wire somewhere in the miles of tightly packed cables shorted out, causing a spark. The atmosphere in the cabin was pure oxygen, pressurized to about 16 pounds per square inch, and it flashed into flame. The cockpit was engulfed, and bulkheads ruptured, spewing flames into the gantry and preventing any rescue attempts. It took five and a half minutes before the hatches could be removed, and by then the astronauts were dead. The official cause of death was smoke inhalation. What came of this tragedy was, among other things, the abolition of the use of pure oxygen in spacecraft, and a redesigning of the double, inward opening hatch system into a single, outward opening hatch.
Few people alive today don't know the story of the Challenger. At 11:38 am on January 28, 1986, after many delays and problems, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off on a very cold Florida morning. 73 seconds later an O-ring on the starboard solid rocket booster ruptured, and the spacecraft was destroyed. This tragedy was all the more poignant because, for the first time, there was a civilian on board. Christa McAuliffe was a school teacher who earned the opportunity to be the first non-astronaut to go into space. It was a great chance to boost the flagging public support for the manned space program, not to mention a great opportunity for Ms. McAulliffe. Unfortunately she became an unwilling martyr and symbol for those who would see the manned program done away with. Ultimately it was found that the problem was not faulty equipment, although that was the immediate cause of the accident, but a refusal of the administrators to listen when engineers said there was a problem with the equipment. Launch dates and public relations became more important than safety, and seven people payed for that misplacement of priorities with their lives. Many people lost their jobs when the investigation was finished, and two years later Discovery launched flawlessly. Things seemed to be back on track until...
February 1, 2003. The Columbia was coming home after 16 days in orbit. They were tired, but very pleased with the mission, and recovered film showed that they were joking and upbeat until the tragedy struck. No one on board the shuttle knew that during their launch a chunk of the insulating foam from the nose of the liquid fuel tank punched a hole in the leading edge of the port wing. It may be a blessing that they didn't know, since there would not have been anything they could have done about it, but that is a debate for philosophers. The facts are that as the spacecraft entered the atmosphere, turning it's incredible speed into ionized, super-heated plasma, the port wing ruptured and the shuttle was ripped apart in a blazing spread of debris that could be seen for hundreds of miles. Pieces of the doomed ship and crew were found in three states, and it took months to gather it in an attempt to determine the cause. And again, like the Challenger, it was determined that while the equipment failure was the immediate cause, the mindset of NASA to underplay or ignore warnings was the underlying reason.
I shall not editorialize on these tragedies, I merely wish to memorialize in my own small way. These astronauts died in pursuit of one of the greatest of human dreams-the furthering of our knowledge and understanding of the universe in which we live. It's true that, compared to the 2,000+ dead in Iraq, and the millions who have died in wars and atrocities all over the world in the decades since 1967, seventeen lives lost is pretty insignificant, but these lives were freely given in the noble attempt to better humanity, and that is worthy of remembering and honoring.
Rest in peace, travelers.