NASA’s Tragedies – Remembering Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia

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Editor’s note: Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Wednesday is the 49th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, and Monday marks the 13th anniversary of the loss of the shuttle Columbia. We are republishing this story from two years ago as a reminder of the events and a tribute to the astronauts that lost their lives.

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, 2003, 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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By January 28, 1986, I was almost as engaged in the space program as my father. I worked for the local newspaper and one of my areas of coverage was the space program. I had not missed a single launch, watching several of them from the Kennedy Space Center press site – so close to the launch pad you could almost feel the heat from the thrusters as the vehicles roared skyward. One of the lasting memories of launches was the sound. If the wind was blowing across the river just right, the sound of the rockets and the vibrations of the rumble would get so incredible that our kitchen cupboard doors would pop open. But with Challenger, the 25th shuttle to be launched, it was not the rumble of liftoff that signaled a problem. It was the uncharacteristic second one.

I was not working this launch, so I did the unthinkable. I slept in. When the familiar rumble woke me up, I glanced at the clock to see that Challenger had indeed lifted off on time. However, slightly more than minute later, I heard another rumble. I ran outside, only to see the familiar plume of smoke stop abruptly and branch off into a grotesque Y as the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters screamed away from the exploded main tank and what was left of Challenger. I immediately turned on the TV to hear the report of a “major malfunction” from NASA’s launch director and my heart sank.

I immediately went to the office to start writing news for the EXTRA that our paper was putting together. After all the triumphs of the last 19 years, the morning of January 28 would become an addition to the sad trivia question that accompanied disasters or national tragedies:

“Where were you when …?”

I did the unthinkable. I slept in.

I couldn’t get through to Dad at the space center. Our news room was deathly silent, and there was not a dry eye in the building. I couldn’t even begin to think about what was going on at NASA as they struggled to raise the crew on the radio and figure out what had just happened.

Unfortunately, it would be several months before the tragedy was pieced together, and the word “o-ring” became a common term in the English language. In the aftermath, it became clear that complacency and NASA’s growing need to stay on schedule with a calendar of more frequent launches led to the deaths of astronauts Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ron McNair and Greg Jarvis. The signs that the shuttle should not have been launched were there. Only a few spoke up, but no one in the hierarchy listened, as the mission had already been delayed six times throughout the previous week.

It was a sad and trying time for the NASA family, especially as more of the bleak news on how the accident happened came to light. My Dad, so proud of his association with the program, later told me that it was the only time in his career that he was ever ashamed to be part of NASA. But the program endured, and by September 1988, the shuttle program was back in space.

Dad eventually retired from NASA, and I moved on to California in 2000 to join the video game industry. Dad still never missed watching a launch, and he would call all his buddies at the space center each time for a job well done. I shared his enthusiasm with each launch and landing, the sting of missing the Challenger launch still embedded in my subconscious.

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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