From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities… Competent means we will never take anything for granted… Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write Tough and Competent on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.
-Gene Kranz, former NASA Flight Director, after the Apollo I tragedy
So begins the saddest week in American space history.
Since the formation of a space committee and later program in the late 1950s, American forays into the unknowns of outer space have only resulted in three major fatal accidents where the entire crew has perished in the mission spacecraft, however, they all eerily occurred during the same calendar week.
Space travel has always been a tricky business. It takes a lot, and I mean a lot, of energy to exit the confines of this planet and enter into the realm of outer space, internationally defined by the Karman line (100km/62 miles above sea level). Not to mention it’s expensive. However, some have paid the highest price in training, and at the start and end of missions. Altogether, 32 men and women have lost their lives in space-based missions.
The three most well known of these were missions for NASA that occurred in different eras of space operation. The first happened on January 27, 1967, when a fire burned in the cabin of Apollo I during a rehearsal for the launch that was slated almost a month later. 19 years and one day later on January 28, 1986, the Challenger shuttle exploded shortly after its launch. 17 years and four days after this tragedy on February 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentry. There have been other accidents for NASA and other agencies throughout their time, but these were the largest and led to the deaths of the entire crews.
Apollo I was the first manned lunar mission. Its intent was to take the new Apollo Command/Service Module (CSM) up into low Earth orbit. Gus Grissom, the second American in space, was the command pilot. Along with Edward H White II and Roger B. Chaffee, Grissom was slated to make even more contributions to history. Many assumed he was the prime candidate to be the first man on the moon when the Apollo program was ready to make a manned landing. Obviously, he never got the chance. While performing a rehearsal trial at Cape Canaveral, Florida, a fire started as a result of an electrical issue. The cabin was filled with pure oxygen, which is highly flammable, and almost instantly after the fire ignited it consumed the entire capsule. The pressure from the fire forced the already problematic hatch door closed and trapped the astronauts inside, literally sealing their doom. Hatch doors were not kind to Grissom; he nearly drowned following his historic sub-orbital flight aboard Liberty Bell 7 when the hatch malfunctioned and blew open causing water to flood the spacecraft, eventually sinking it. The aftermath forced NASA to slow their pace in their lunar program in order to ensure their astronauts’ safety. The next five Apollo missions were unmanned, until Apollo VII completed the mission originally intended for Apollo I, 20 months later in October of 1968.
The Challenger space shuttle was first flown in April of 1983. The second of the orbiter fleet of shuttles (meaning it was actually sent into orbit unlike the first shuttle, Enterprise), Challenger successfully completed nine flight missions before its demise in 1986. Its final flight was not heavily publicized, but did receive a fair amount of interest thanks the inclusion of a civilian, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, as a member of the seven person crew. Her involvement in the mission prompted many schools across America to tune in to the live broadcast to show to children during class.
The cause of the craft’s explosion was an O-ring on the right solid rocket booster (SRB) that became unsealed during liftoff and allowed flammable gas to escape. Later that day, President Ronald Reagan gave a memorable and touching speech to explain the state of mourning, as well as the continued resolve to not pull back but keep pushing on with space exploration. I particularly like his address to the children who saw the disaster unfold in their schools. It does well to present a sad, yet strong reflection of how sometimes we fail and sometimes those failures result in deaths. He presents it in a manner that is not condescending and reminds me of how Mister Rogers would speak to children about concepts and events that even adult minds have trouble grasping the reasons for.
The first shuttle flown into space, Columbia was the vehicle which marked the beginning of a new era of space travel and study. This era was put on hold briefly in the wake of the aforementioned tragedy surrounding the second of Columbia‘s fleet, but Columbia was integral in literally getting the shuttle program back off the ground and into the cosmos. For 22 years, it was an invaluable asset for NASA and carried crews to and from Earth on 27 missions. During takeoff of its 28th, Columbia lost a piece of foam from its external tank (ET) that damaged its left wing. The damage dealt was not visible enough to be detected, but proved to be significant enough to destroy the ship during reentry as hot gases from the atmosphere disintegrated the left wing and eventually the entire ship as it made its landing approach.
Apollo I lost all three of its crew, and Challenger and Columbia lost all seven of their respective crews also, but these were not the only instances of astronauts dying on a mission. The first fatality was Valentin Bondarenko, a cosmonaut in the Soviet Union who was burned in a training altitude chamber and later succumbed to his severe wounds back in March 1961. Since we have been venturing into space and training to do so, there have been casualties of this pioneering science. Most occurred during training flights, including the death of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who along with flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin crashed in a MiG-15 while attempting to avoid a weather balloon. The most recent space mission gone wrong was on Halloween, October 31, 2014. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed when VSS Enterprise, one of Virgin Galactic’s experimental spaceplane, crashed into the Mojave Desert in California. Fortunately, pilot Peter Siebold, who was badly hurt, survived and recovered.
On November 15, 1967, test pilot Michael J. Adams was killed when the X-15 he was flying lost control and spun out before falling in an inverted dive and snapping apart around 20km above the ground. Those who read my post about the SR-71 Blackbird may recall I identified that plane as “the fastest flyer in the sky that stays in this confines of this world” and that it reached speeds of Mach 3.3. The X-15 was a hypersonic rocket propelled aircraft that skirted over the edge of space (at least as defined by the United States mark of 80.5km/50 miles above the ground) and clocked speeds over 7200km/h (about 4500mph) or Mach 6.72. Adams’ X-15 spun at Mach 5 and fell at Mach 4.7. Even though he did not cross the Karman line, as Adams had passed beyond the U.S. recognized line of space he was, as were other X-15 pilots who achieved the same feat, awarded astronaut wings. Sadly, his were presented posthumously.
Most spacefarers have come from the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, yet others have hailed from nations around the world. Still, the only one not from either of these countries to die in the line of duty was Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who was onboard the Columbia.
This is the complete list of all astronauts and cosmonauts who died in service to their countries and the endeavor to learn more of the universe:
Virgil “Gus” Grissom
Edward H. White II
Clifton C. Williams
Michael J. Adams
Michael J. Smith
Rick D. Husband
Michael P. Anderson
David M. Brown
Laurel B. Clark
Despite these tragedies, space research is always moving forward. Learning from the mistakes of the past, NASA and other space agencies have improved their technology in the wake of their courageous crew members’ ultimate sacrifice. Given the incredible progress in craft development and space exploration made in such a short span of time, not to mention the inherent risks of the missions, it is amazing that there have been so few accidents resulting in human harm. Nevertheless, we must always remember those unfortunate few who gave all to further the pursuit of knowledge and progress. Everything we have now, in the field of space research, as well as in all other ventures, we owe a credit to others before us. Just as our astronauts stand on the shoulders (or perhaps fly on the wings) of those pilots who preceded them, we have much to be thankful for to all involved in increasing our scientific know-how, from the computer I’m writing this on, to the device your reading it on, to everything involved in the making of the coffee at your side. Space experiments and exploration do more than put people in zero-g, they make our world a better place to live, and hopefully in the future will allow us to do the same with other worlds.
Thanks for reading. If you are interested about more information regarding NASA and space research then check out their underfunded, yet excellent website. Be sure to return here next week for the sixth State of the Season quarterly recap. Please send any comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the Benefit of All,