President Obama, NASA Officials, Families Honor Fallen Astronauts

President Obama, NASA Officials, Families Honor Fallen Astronauts

President Barack Obama issued a statement today honoring the memories of astronauts who lost their lives in space exploration and asserted that the United Stated will continue to “lead the world” in space.

Today is NASA’s Day of Remembrance 2013 honoring the crews of Apollo 1 (AS-204), Challenger (STS 51-L) and Columbia (STS-107) who perished.

The President said the crews gaves their lives “in the pursuit of expanding our Nation’s horizons in space — a cause worthy of their sacrifice and one we must never forget.”   Referring to both robotic and human space missions, he asserted that “it’s imperative that America continues to lead the world in reaching for the stars while giving us a better understanding of our home planet.”  Noting the work now underway to build systems to take humans “beyond the Moon” and that “will eventually put humans on Mars,” the President said that as the country honors the lost crews we should “recommit ourselves to living up their shining example.”

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and others laid wreaths today at Arlington National Cemetery at the memorials to the Challenger and Columbia crews and at least one individual gravesite.  There is no memorial to the Apollo 1 crew, but Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee are buried there.  (The cemetery has a list of all the astronauts buried on site.)   

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes while NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden looks on at

wreath laying ceremony on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, February 1, 2013.

Photo:  Bill Ingalls, NASA

A memorial event was held by NASA and the Astronauts Memorial Foundation at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Visitor Complex’s Space Mirror Memorial this morning.   Evelyn Husband-Thompson, widow of STS-107 Commander Rick Husband, recalled the events 10 years ago today when her husband and his six crewmates died as space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over East Texas 16 minutes before they were to touch down at KSC after a successful 16-day science mission.  

She has written a book, High Calling, about her first husband (she is now remarried).   She praised the people of East Texas who retrieved the remnants of Columbia and her crew, thanking them for their graciousness and hospitality.   Just as a fire reduces a forest to ashes, she said, the ashes become “nourishment for new shoots.” She ended with the hope that “may our broken hearts continue to heal and may beauty continue to replace the ashes.”

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier spoke eloquently about the “tremendous responsibility” of flying people in space and how the Columbia tragedy was not caused “by a single event or a single person” but resulted from a series of “technical and cultural missteps” dating back to the first space shuttle flight in 1981 when NASA first discovered that pieces of foam had come off the External Tank and struck the orbiter.   Columbia was destroyed 22 years later when a piece of foam hit Columbia’s wing and punctured it, allowing superheated gases to enter the wing during reentry from orbit.   The wing deformed creating aerodynamic forces that tore the orbiter apart.

Gerstenmaier said “we didn’t stay hungry” during all the years of shuttle flights and look at what would happen if foam was released at just the wrong moment.  The challenge is to “stay vigilant” and recognize that the smallest flaw can become a big problem.  It would have been easy to pull back from exploration, he continued, but “we can’t be afraid of risk and we can’t be ignorant of it either.”   He reminded the audience that on that day 10 years ago he was the International Space Station program manager and two Americans and a Russian were on ISS (Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit and Nikolai Budarin), still under construction at the time.  He and his team had to “separate ourselves from the tragedy,” as difficult as that was, and ensure the safety of the ISS crew.   He said the ISS itself is a tribute to the Columbia crew today, where crews conduct scientific research in space just as they did.

The Senate passed a resolution (S. Res. 24) commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Columbia tragedy as well.

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