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NASA's Tragedies - Remembering Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia

John Keefer | 26 Jan 2016 16:30
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By 2003, the space program was again peppering the sky with frequent launches. Shuttle Columbia launched on January 16, and rendezvoused with the International Space Station. The rather routine mission became the last NASA tragedy, when on February 1, the craft broke apart over Texas during re-entry, killing the seven-member crew. As news of the loss of the craft became more apparent, I quickly called Dad. I could hear the pain in his voice. He had been following the reentry and was getting ready to watch outside as the shuttle would have made its way to land at the space center. We didn't talk long, but he signed off with a rather matter-of-fact statement: "I hope this isn't Challenger all over again."

He had been following the reentry was getting ready to watch outside as the shuttle would have made its way to land at the space center.

Again, the ensuing months were grueling as evidence was pieced together that a suitcase-sized piece of foam insulation had broken off the rocket booster during launch and damaged the left wing's heat-resistant tiles. It was revealed that foam had broken off in previous launches, without any problems, but the commission looking into the disaster determined that the need for timely launches with acceptable costs had led NASA to alter certain safety guidelines. While it was determined that little could have been done to save astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon because the damage was not noticed until the craft was in space and the severity was not apparent, the commission ordered numerous changes to the organizational structure of NASA and many of its safety processes. The shuttle program picked back up again in 2005, and continued without incident to its conclusion in 2011.

When my Dad passed away in 2009, he left me a rather impressive scrapbook of pictures, notes, letters and memorabilia related to the space program. He would have been devastated with the shutdown of the shuttle program, but the optimist in him would have also looked forward to the next phase of space travel coming with the Space Launch System and the transformation of the space center into a space port for private space contractors. In thumbing through everything, it was apparent just how much my father loved NASA's quest for the final frontier.

But in all the triumphs, we cannot forget the ones who gave their lives to get us there. The tragedies marked this week must serve as a reminder that every goal worth achieving has a risk, but that risk should not be made any greater by the lack of diligence in safety. After the Apollo 1 fire, I had written a poem for my dad to try to help him with his grief -- at least as much as an 8-year-old can. I later found it the scrapbook he left me:

Three great men have died tonight
In quest of man's first lunar flight.
In flames they died on Pad 34,
To stalk the fringes of space no more.

Their memory shall never die
As long as men explore the sky.
Seeking worlds beyond our Earth,
Their fiery death is now our birth.

For they showed us not to be afraid
no matter the price that must be paid;
To dare the dreams that make us men
And if we fail, to try again.

They died, and with them, a little of us too,
For they carried the zeal of me and you.
They tried for they did understand
Our prayers and sweat were in their hands.

God bless these men who now are dead,
Who only echoed `Move ahead.'
'Trod upon the moon and Mars
as we watch smiling from the stars.'

This week, we remember the fallen as we gear up for another foray into space. Your families, including the extended NASA ones, salute you and miss you.

Editors' Note: A previous version of this article failed to make the distinction that Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, not simply the first woman in space. That honor belongs to Valentina Tereshkova - our apologies.

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