NASA Remembers Fallen Astronauts

NASA Remembers Fallen Astronauts

NASA observed its annual Day of Remembrance today with a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.  Each year about this time, NASA honors astronauts who died in connection with spaceflights, particularly the Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger and space shuttle Columbia crews who died on January 27, 1967, January 28, 1986, and February 1, 2003 respectively.

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, other NASA officials, and the astronauts’ families and friends participated in today’s ceremony.

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot stands with June Scobee Rogers, widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee, and an unidentified military officer along with other participants in NASA’s 2017 Day of Remembrance at Arlington National Cemetery.   Photo credit: NASA

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire and two events were held at Kennedy Space Center last week as a special tribute to the crew.  They died when fire broke out in their Apollo spacecraft during a ground test on January 27, 1967 prior to a scheduled February 21 launch.  Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died of asphyxiation.  The Apollo capsule was filled with 100 percent oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure. The cause of the fire is thought to have been a spark from an electrical wire although the investigation could not conclusively identify the ignition source.   The capsule had been designed for the hatch to swing inward.  With the pressure inside the capsule greater than that outside, it was impossible for the crew to open it quickly and with fire spreading explosively in 100 percent oxygen, there was little time.  Many changes were made to the design of the Apollo capsule and to test procedures afterwards. 

The crew of Apollo 1:  Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee.  Photo credit: NASA

Nineteen years and one day later, on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff when a rubber “O-ring” in one of its Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) failed because of unusually cold temperatures.  The mission was designated STS-51L.  A Presidential Commission chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers found that the O-ring failure was the technical cause of the tragedy, but flawed decision-making was a contributing cause:  “The decision to launch the Challenger was flawed. Those who made that decision were unaware of the recent history of problems concerning the O-rings and the joint and were unaware of the initial written recommendation of the contractor advising against the launch at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit and the continuing opposition of the engineers at Thiokol after the management reversed its position. They did not have a clear understanding of Rockwell’s concern that it was not safe to launch because of ice on the pad. If the decisionmakers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch 51-L on January 28, 1986.”

The astronauts who died in the Challenger tragedy were:

  • NASA Commander Dick Scobee
  • NASA Pilot Mike Smith
  • NASA Mission Specialist Judy Resnik
  • NASA Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka
  • NASA Mission Specialist Ron McNair
  • Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis (from Hughes Aircraft)
  • “Teacher in Space” Christa McAuliffe

Space Shuttle Challenger crew, left to right:  front row Mike Smith, Dick Scobee and Ron McNair; back row Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis and Judy Resnik.  Photo credit:  NASA

Almost exactly 14 years after Challenger, on February 1, 2003, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was killed during their return to Earth after a 16-day science mission designated STS-107.  Columbia disintegrated when the superheated gases encountered during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere entered one of its wings through a hole punctured by a piece of foam that fell from the shuttle’s External Tank during launch. The extreme heat – a normal part of reentry – caused the wing to fail structurally, creating aerodynamic forces that led to the disintegration of the orbiter. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), chaired by Adm. Harold Gehman (Ret.), concluded that the tragedy was caused by both technical and organizational failures.  Changes were made and the space shuttle returned to flight in 2005, but foam continued to fall from the External Tank during subsequent launches.  Safety was one of the factors in the George W. Bush Administration’s decision to terminate the shuttle program once construction of the International Space Station was completed.  The Obama Administration adopted the Bush Administration’s position and the shuttle program ended in July 2011.

The astronauts who died in the Columbia tragedy were:

  • NASA Commander Rick Husband
  • NASA Pilot William McCool
  • NASA Payload Commander Michael Anderson
  • NASA Mission Specialist David Brown
  • NASA Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla
  • NASA Mission Specialist Laurel Clark
  • Israeli Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon

Space Shuttle Columbia crew:  from left –  David Brown (NASA), Rick Husband (NASA), Laurel Clark (NASA), Kalpana Chawla (NASA), Michael Anderson (NASA), William McCool (NASA), Ilan Ramon (Israeli Air Force). Photo credit: NASA.


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