By odd coincidence the three tragedies that have befallen the United States space program have occurred at this time of year.
Today is the 46th anniversary of the first—the Apollo 1 cabin fire that killed the three-man crew during a launch pad test. Tomorrow marks the 27th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger a minute and 13 seconds after STS-51-L was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, killing all seven crewmembers. And Friday, Feb. 1 will be the tenth anniversary of the deaths of seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated during the re-entry of STS-107.
The Challenger disaster is especially vivid in my memory, even though I didn’t actually see it happen. I was a cub reporter at KJR radio in Seattle at the time, and was working the late-night shift, so I’d slept late that day as usual. By late morning or early afternoon I wandered out to get a haircut. My barber immediately struck up a conversation about the space shuttle that blew up. I had no idea, and remember thinking he must be joking. The whole idea was unthinkable and too horrible to imagine. But later I saw the video of the launch on television, and the photos of the smoke plume of the launch and explosion are certainly iconic images.
The crew of that final mission included schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who was one of the astronauts killed in the explosion. McAuliffe was chosen for the flight from among thousands of applicants to NASA’s teacher in space program. As a side note, at the time there also was a journalist-in-space program, and I was all set to apply, even given the long odds that an unknown radio news producer from Seattle would beat out Tom Brokaw for the seat. The program was scrapped after Challenger. Strangely, there was apparently some consideration of starting the program back up a decade ago when the Columbia disaster happened. It may be bad luck to even consider letting a journalist near a spacecraft!
I don’t really remember the Apollo 1 fire or watching any news coverage of it. I was nine years old at the time, and already a space nut. I kept a scrapbook of news clippings about the Gemini missions and space walks and the exciting adventures of the astronauts. What I do remember is the big, bold headline announcing the tragic deaths of the astronauts. Again, it was unthinkable. I imagine those scrapbooks are still over at the old homestead.
When NASA looks back on these anniversaries it is in celebration. Earlier this month NASA Administrator Charles Bolden talked about the upcoming day of commemoration while on a tour of the shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
“We go out to Arlington [National Cemetery] and we honor the memory of all three crews that were lost over the history of human spaceflight,” Bolden said. “We think about it every day, but we take those particular times and set them aside when we can let everyone else join us and help celebrate.”
Bolden is in Israel right now helping to celebrate the life of Ilan Ramon, an Israeli astronaut who was aboard Columbia when it was lost in 2003.
“We lost some really valiant people,” Bolden said, “but what their sacrifice brought is what we should really be thinking about. The fact is that they dared to challenge and do things differently. Because of what they did we’re well on the cusp of going deeper into space than we’ve ever done before.”
Bolden said it’s important for museums to tell the story of space travel as we look at the International Space Station, watch the growing involvement of private, commercial companies in space travel, and consider the possibilities for mining of asteroids or of human missions to other planets.
“None of that stuff would have been possible had it not been for the sacrifices of those in the shuttle program,” said Bolden, himself a four-time shuttle astronaut.
The Museum of Flight has a special event planned for next Saturday, Feb. 2, which will remember the astronauts as part of its Michael P. Anderson Memorial Aerospace Program. Anderson is a Spokane native and astronaut who also died aboard Columbia. Former astronaut Robert L. Curbeam, Jr., who was a member of Anderson’s astronaut class, will keynote the event, which also will include a panel discussion by local African Americans who are pursuing successful careers in aerospace. The event begins at 2 p.m. and is free with museum admission. It’s usually an inspiring event; you can read our coverage of it from last year, and from 2011 when Bolden was the keynote speaker.