by Shane L. Larson
From January 27 to February 1 every year is a time of remembrances at NASA: it is the week where we observe the anniversaries of the deaths of three flight crews, all of whom perished in the pursuit of human spaceflight. We remember and celebrate the the fallen crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia.Humans often think of themselves as invincible, as the apex species on planet Earth, but it seems clear that we are more fragile than we like to think. If you take our frail bodies and carry them just 50 miles over our heads, we cannot possibly survive on our own. But we are a curious and clever species, and not prone to accepting the notion that there is something we cannot do. Over the long course of our history, we have harnessed technology to allow us to take our bodies to places they were not designed to go, and to survive. It’s easy to discount our earliest endeavours as mundane: constructing shelters, building fires, and making clothing that permits winter wandering. Such skills ultimately transmuted from simple survival into dreams of mimicking the abilities of other lifeforms. Could we dive deep beneath the waves, or take to the air and fly? By the 1800s, aeronauts had successfully developed ballooning, and by the early 1900s the development of mechanical wings and controls launched the era of human flight that has evolved into the aviation industry we have today. But in the middle of the 20th century other dreams were simmering to the surface, largely in the minds of fiction authors. What would it be like to travel beyond the bonds of Earth? Could we make a remarkable voyage from the Earth to the Moon?
Historians and cultural specialists often frame the conversations about the dawn of the Space Age around the Cold War, the opposition of East versus West in the aftermath of World War II. The Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a war of ideologies, marked by strutting and preening. Technical achievements trumpeted how each ideology supported progress more, and reaching the Moon was the ultimate prize. But while the national agenda may have been set that way, and resources committed to the endeavour, that is not what won people’s hearts and minds. Consider all the scientists and engineers who designed and built the great machines, the astronauts who flew in them, and the millions who watched from the sidelines: I’m willing to speculate that only a handful of them were motivated by politics. Far more of them, I think, felt the rapture of the all encompassing dream of reaching out from our small island home, the Earth.
Carl Sagan once noted that knowing the Cosmos is a humbling and character-building experience. Our conceits let us dare leave the Earth, even in the face of a Universe infinitely harsh and relentlessly brutal and unforgiving in ways that are hard for us to imagine. Our successes are soaring, exultant moments that we point to in later days, reminding ourselves of what we are capable of. But the failures, the disasters, are that much more crushing, reminders of how hard our goal is to attain, reminders of how painfully incapable and inexperienced we are in the quest to crawl out of our cradle.
The loss of the NASA flight crews were singularly painful moments — it is impossible to imagine the loss felt by their families, or by their colleagues and friends at NASA who had worked alongside them to make their journey possible. But for the rest of us, who watched the tragedy unfold on smaller than life television screens and brittle leaves of newspapers, those moments are burned in our memories, surrounded by the other parts of our lives we were engaged in that day.
The loss of Apollo 1 occurred just twelve days after the first Super Bowl, where the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10 in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Vietnam War was still raging and arguably occupied a huge part of the American psyche, dominating the news every day.On 27 January 1967 (25 days prior to launch) Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee — the first three person crew in the history of the Space Age — mounted the gantry at launch pad 34 and at 1pm Eastern Standard Time entered the Apollo 1 capsule for their “plugs out test.” Plugs out was a regular ground test NASA ran to assure themselves the spacecraft could operate on its own without being plugged into power and equipment here on planet Earth. After five-and-a-half hours of tests, the crew was still in their capsule, sealed inside and trouble-shooting problems (notably a problem with the communications link). At 6:31:04.7 pm fire broke out on the capsule and a garbled alarm to that effect was called out by one of the astronauts. The fire was fueled by the pure oxygen atmosphere in the capsule, and just 15 seconds passed before the hull of the capsule ruptured at 6:31:19 pm. It took pad crews more than five minutes to get inside the capsule to the crew, who had perished.
It was a horrific tragedy. Later analysis and investigation showed exactly how it happened and what prevented the crew from escaping and rescue crews from getting to them more readily. It was caused, as Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman later remarked, “by a failure of imagination.” NASA was not unaware of the dangers associated with spaceflight, nor were the astronauts. But up to that point, they had failed to imagine that a regular test on the ground could lead to the death of a crew.
There was an investigation, and Congressional hearings. There are plenty of machinations about why such investigations happen, but I think they happen for a very particular reason — to allow us to understand where we (those left behind) failed those we lost. We often reflect, particularly in the heat of our pain, on whether or not the loss of human life is an acceptable risk in our quest to go where Nature never intended. Gus Grissom himself had weighed in on such risk the year before he perished:
“If we die we want people to accept it. We are 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. Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis, only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men.”
Eventually, the Apollo program restarted, leading to six successful landings on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. The Space Age waxed on, and there were other close calls — nail biting moments when it seemed we might lose another crew — but NASA, with a flotilla of capable engineers and scientists, weathered them all and brought the crews home.
That changed on 28 January 1986, with flight STS-51L and the space shuttle Challenger. It was the 25th mission of the space shuttle program, and Challenger’s tenth flight. The mission had garnered far more attention from the public than many of the previous flights because of the unique nature of its crew — it was the first flight to include a crew member for the “Teacher in Space” program, Christa McAuliffe. Her inclusion on the crew had electrified students, teachers, and schools across the country, and on the morning of the launch millions of people were glued to their television screens. I was among them, huddled around a large TV screen in our school library with a group of friends.After three previous scrubbed attempts, and a delay of two hours that day, Challenger launched at 11:38am EST on 28 January 1986. Just 73 seconds into the flight, a small leak in the right solid-rocket burned through a support strut and into the main external fuel tank, leading to a catastrophic failure, and loss of the entire crew: Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, Judy Resnick, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, and Gregory Jarvis.
It was a devastating moment indelibly etched in the minds of everyone who had been watching. As with Apollo 1 before it, the brought the American spaceflight program to a standstill for 975 days. A six month investigation following the disaster identified a failed O-ring in the solid-rocket as the source of the failure, enabled by poor risk analysis and abetted by colder than normal temperatures that did not delay the launch on the day of the accident (though it should have).The loss of Challenger was particularly overwhelming because it was the largest crew ever to perish on a mission — 7 people, most of them civilians or civilian astronauts, not test pilots or military pilots. For all of us with day jobs as teachers, or 7-11 managers, or grocery clerks, or dental hygienists — it put a very real face on the fact that if we ordinary people ever travel to space regularly, there will be undeniable catastrophes that occur. Such realizations dramatically dampen the spirit and enthusiasm for daring greatly.
But the space shuttles did return to the skies, once again, just more than two-and-a-half years later, when the Discovery soared aloft with a 5 person crew for a four day flight. Space shuttle missions continued on apace again, the flights once again fading in the news cycle and noted only by those who were paying attention or soaring alongside in their mind’s eye.After the loss of Challenger a new orbiter, Endeavour, was commissioned and joined the other shuttles, Columbia, Discovery, and Atlantis. There were 88 more shuttle flights through the start of 2003, beginning with STS-26 by Discovery. There were spectacular successes all along the way, including the launch of space probes like Galileo and Ulysses. The space shuttles deployed the first two of NASA’s “Great Observatories,” the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle began visiting the Russian Space Station, Mir, and assembly began on the International Space Station. Other satellites were launched, and the Hubble Space Telescope was serviced and repaired. In a way, the space shuttles accomplished in that era what NASA had always promised — spaceflight had become common, an everyday experience. Seeing news of the shuttle launching on the backpage of the newspaper was kind of like seeing a story about the latest fleet of city buses or the bio of a new city manager. Spaceflight faded into the background cacophony of modern life. But in early 2003, the space shuttle Columbia launched on a 16 day mission, STS-107. The 15-day mission carried out a wealth of experiments. The carbo-bay held the Spacehab module, which provided additional habitable space for the experiments of crew, beyond the space available on the orbiter itself. Prominent experiments included video monitoring and characterization of atmospheric dust, as well as monitoring the web-building habits of orb weaver spiders in microgravity. At the end of the mission, on 1 February 2003, Columbia had reentered the Earth’s atmosphere heading for a landing in Florida. Undetected damage Columbia had sustained on the forward edge of the left wing during launch would be its undoing. During reentry, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter the airframe, burning through the wing and leading to a catastrophic breakup of the orbiter, killing all seven crew aboard: Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, and Ilan Ramon. After the Columbia tragedy, the burden of returning to the skies once again fell to Discovery. Once again, return to the skies we did. On 26 July 2005, Discovery launched on STS-114, carrying a 7 person crew on a 13 day mission to the International Space Station. After the Columbia tragedy, there were 22 shuttle flights, but on 8 July 2011, Atlantis made the last space shuttle launch in history. When its wheels rolled to a stop in the cool morning hours of 21 July 2011 at the Cape, the era of space shuttles came to an end. The shuttles have retired, and like their capsule forebears, have retired to museums and science centers around the country where you can visit them, stare at them, and relive the adventurous journeys they made. It should be noted that spaceflight is inherently dangerous; fatalities were not confined to the American space program — our nominal competitors in the Space Race, the Soviet Union, also suffered great losses. In 1967, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died on Soyuz 1, when the parachute failed to properly deploy on return to Earth; it was the first in-flight fatality of a spacefarer. In 1971, cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov were the first crew to spend time aboard a space station, living for 23 days aboard Salyut 1. They died returning to Earth after an accidental decompression of their capsule; they are the only crew to have died in space.
Today, the human spaceflight program is quieter than it once was. The United States currently does not have a launch system for sending crews to space, though American astronauts travel to the International Space Station aboard Russian rockets. That does not seem to dampen the enthusiasm for nor the mystique of astronauts!
Hero culture is a thing, and it isn’t always a good thing. Joseph Campbell, in his excellent book “The Power of Myth” says that “I always feel uncomfortable when people speak about ordinary mortals because I’ve never met an ordinary man, woman or child.” In general, I think there is deep truth in that. But astronauts are something different: almost universally, they encapsulate what can be good about hero culture. We watch and look up to astronauts the way many of us look up to our parents or our grandparents — as a source of inspiration, a source of motivation, as proof that we can and will be more than we think. Every day, we all do something in the world that matters, but we forget that, crushed under the press of noise from the news, or burdened by the weight of difficulties with our co-workers, our families, our social lives, or making enough money to survive. In some corner of our minds, we aspire to be more. We clamp down on that bright spark of aspiration, perhaps embarrassed by it, and seldom let it shine. Instead we only uncover it when we’re alone at night, gazing at it and daydreaming in the moments before sleep. Our heroes, whomever they are, are a spark we revel in, when we are willing to let it leak out.
For me, space has ever-infused my thoughts and dreams. Every time I see an astronaut spacewalking with the jeweled curve of the Earth reflected in their visor, or watch the long loping hops of the Apollo astronauts on the Moon, or look at the photographs of our lost crews, I still somehow imagine my face among them. Which is weird, because I long ago gave up the quest to be an astronaut, replacing it with other dreams of space in the forms of black holes, surging gravitational forces, and galaxies billions of lightyears away. Despite abandoning the quest, apparently I didn’t abandon the dream. This week every year always shows me that. Revisiting the fallen NASA crews every year makes me remember what it is about human spaceflight that moves us so.
And so, as this week concludes and passes us by once again, I encourage you to dust off your mental photo-album of your heroes and refresh your soul with them once again. For those who are still with us, embrace their vision and mission anew, and go out refreshed in your fight to make the world a better place. And for those who have left us, say farewell once again, to whomever they are. They are the ones that remind all of us that in our brighter moments, we strive to be something better, that we are more than the tribulations in our every day lives may suggest we are. Remember those brighter moments, and stretch for them every day. Kalpana Chawla reminds us, “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.”
And so, to the fallen crews whose gossamer memories drift in the back of my mind, I say farewell once again. Gus Grissom. Ed White. Roger Chaffee. Vladimir Komarov. Georgy Dobrovolsky. Viktor Patsayev. Vladislav Volkov. Christa McAuliffe. Gregory Jarvis. Judy Resnick. Dick Scobee. Ron McNair. Mike Smith. Ellison Onizuka. Kalpana Chawla. Rick Husband. Laurel Clark. Ilan Ramon. Michael Anderson. David Brown. William McCool.
From the stars we came, and to the stars we shall return, now and for all eternity. Ad Astra Per Aspera.
This post is the first post in a series that explores the ephemeral nature of human life in our quest to understand our place in the Cosmos. The posts in the series are:
Memento Mori 1: Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth (this post)