28 January 2008

Remembering the Challenger and Apollo 1 Crews

On this date in 1986, all seven crewmembers of the Challenger space shuttle were killed.

The dates this week all seem strangely connected to the worst episodes in the history of space exploration. With my last post, discussing the loss of the Ranger 3 probe, I wanted to talk about the imperfection of human endeavors, but in that case, I could afford to speak lightly of the probe missing the moon. It was, after all, an unmanned probe, and all that was lost was time, effort, and money. Some have had to give much more to the cause of exploring space.

Yesterday was the 41st anniversary of the Apollo 1 disaster. Three astronauts died when a fire started and rapidly spread through the spacecraft as it sat on the launchpad. Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were later found to have died of smoke inhalation, but were very heavily burned.

Today marks another sad date in NASA history, and one that, unlike the Apollo 1 fire, I was around to witness. 22 years ago today, the Challenger shuttle exploded seven seconds after takeoff from Cape Canaveral. I remember watching, back in the days when every school child in America watched every launch. It was still an occasion, and a great place to start a lesson, especially in a science class. This launch was even more heavily watched by American classrooms, because a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was aboard, about to become the first teacher ever to leave the atmosphere of Earth.

McAuliffe's name is still, and will always be inexorably connected to the Challenger explosion. She was the public face of the mission, the poster child for NASA, and when the mission turned so horribly and suddenly tragic, she was still the name in the headlines. I asked a few friends today what they remembered of the explosion, and the only name that any of them could remember was Christa McAuliffe. Six professional astronauts also lost their lives that day, in the performance of their duties and in service of not only our country, but our species. Their names are Greg Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Francis Scobee, and Michael Smith. They all deserve to be remembered.

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