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NASA's Tragedies: Remembering Challenger, Columbia

John Keefer | 27 Jan 2014 17:00
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If you have ever watched a rocket launch from the Kennedy Space Center, then you know it is something that sticks with you. The sight of the massive vehicle being pushed into space atop flaming rockets, leaving a huge trellis of smoke toward the heavens, still makes my heart skip a beat. Of course, I'm a NASA kid, raised in a family where my father worked for the space program, and I lived across the river from the space center in a spot that offered a birds-eye view of each and every launch of the Apollo and shuttle missions. We moved to Florida in 1963 during the Gemini program so Dad could work at the center and, from the age of 5, the space program was part of my life.

It is also why this week is incredibly sad and emotional for me. You see, crammed tightly into this week, starting with Monday and ending Saturday, three of the most tragic moments in the history of NASA happened. On January 27, 1967, three astronauts died in a launch pad fire during preparations for Apollo 1. Then, 19 years later, on January 28, space shuttle Challenger blew up 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven crew members, including the first teacher in space. And finally, on Saturday, February 1, 11 years ago, shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas as it was returning home from a mission, killing another seven astronauts.

Each tragedy was a kick in the gut to a nation that loved its space pioneers. But to those who worked in the program, the loss of those lives was almost as monumental as if those astronauts had been your flesh and blood. They were family by extension and we mourned deeply in a way that only people associated with the program could fully understand.

To those who worked in the program, the loss of those lives was almost as monumental as if those astronauts had been your flesh and blood.

My father was a proud member of NASA for 30 years. He worked with the astronauts at various stages in his career and even had a patent for NASA that helped monitor their heart beats in space. So when the Apollo 1 fire took the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, it hit us hard. My mom, two sisters and I had seen the news on TV while Dad was at work, and my Mom was crying. I was almost 9 at the time and my two sisters were too young to understand the reason why Mom was upset, but I knew enough to try to be supportive and consoling. I also remember how worried Mom was about how Dad would handle it, given his close relationship with all of the astronauts as an electronics technician. When he finally backed the car into the driveway late that night, I wanted to rush out and hug him and tell him I was sorry. But I stopped when, watching from the window, I saw my dad lean over the steering wheel sobbing, his shoulders shaking with the momentous loss he felt. My dad never cried in front of us. His grief was raw in a way I had never seen.

He eventually came into the house, his eyes still wet and red, and from that moment, I fully understood the meaning of "NASA family." We celebrated triumphs as one and felt heartache as one. Over the next 19 years, the Apollo program recovered and continued. We reveled in the first orbit of the moon, Neil Armstrong's time-stopping giant leap for mankind, and the miraculous and heroic tragedy-turned-triumph of Apollo 13. We continued the feel-good ascent of the space program with the joint Apollo-Soyuz space mission, and finally the shuttle launches. Those missions brought us some impressive firsts: The first American woman in space in Sally Ride, and the first African American to reach the stars in Guion Bluford. NASA's space program, and the family, had recovered to celebrate almost two decades of good news, wonderful adventures and an almost flawless performance record.

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