by Chris Tobias
It is indeed a rough road that leads to the stars, and the exploration of strange new worlds is intrinsically a risky endeavor. In the history of NASA’s space program, there are many astronauts who have made the ultimate sacrifice to further our understanding of the universe. Fourteen lost their lives during a mission. Three perished in a launch pad accident. Numerous others have died as the result of aircraft accidents during training, and one was even lost in a commercial airline crash while traveling on NASA business.
We’ve talked a lot this week about changes in the way that we go into space happening right now that, we hope, will make the heavens available to all. The day will come that spaceflight becomes so routine that memorializing those lost to it will seem unnecessary and excessive. We’re not at that point, yet, though, and feel that we still owe it to them to remember their names.
The following is a profile of the seventeen astronauts who have died as a direct result of misfortune that occurred during NASA’s space flight programs. It is not intended to be a detailed account of what went wrong, nor is it meant to be biographical. It is simply a small tribute to some very big heroes who should never be forgotten– men and women who “loved the stars too much to be afraid of the dark.”
On January 27, 1967, a flash fire in the hyper-oxygenated cabin of the command module during a launch pad test killed all three crew members. Although the source of ignition was never determined, the fire was attributed to numerous design and construction flaws in the early Apollo command module. Those who were lost were:
Roger B. Chaffee (February 15, 1935-January 27, 1967): Lt. Commander, US Navy; naval aviator and aeronautical engineer; graduated from Purdue University after turning down an appointment to the US Naval Academy; flew the RA-3B Skywarrior as a navy reconnaissance pilot; served during the Cuban Missile Crisis (exact role unknown due the nature of his work); involved in both the Gemini and Apollo programs as an astronaut; awarded the Navy Air Medal and (posthumously) the Congressional Space Medal of Honor; buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom (April 3, 1926-January 27, 1967): Lt. Colonel, US Air Force; combat pilot and one of the original Mercury astronauts; the second American to fly in space, and the first NASA astronaut to fly in space twice; flew 100 combat missions in the F-86 Sabre during the Korean War; earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and (posthumously) the Congressional Space Medal of Honor; involved in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs; buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Edward H. White II (November 14, 1930-January 27, 1967): Lt. Colonel, US Air Force; pilot and aeronautical engineer; graduate of US Military Academy at West Point; flew the F-86 and F-100 as a USAF pilot in Germany; involved in both the Gemini and Apollo programs; became the first American to walk in space on June 3, 1965; described the end of his spacewalk as “the saddest moment of his life;” awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and (posthumously) the Congressional Space Medal of Honor; buried at West Point.
Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51-L)
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart just 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members. The cause was an explosion that ignited after an O-ring seal failed in one of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. Those who were lost were:
Greg Jarvis (August 24, 1944-January 28, 1986): Captain, US Air Force (1969-1973); electrical engineer; worked on a number of missile and spacecraft projects for Raytheon and Hughes Aircraft corporations both before and after his service in the USAF; posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Christa McAuliffe (September 2, 1948-January 28, 1986): Social Studies teacher at Concord High School (New Hampshire); first participant educator selected in the the Teacher in Space Project; would have conducted experiments and taught two lessons from space; posthumously awarded Congressional Space Medal of Honor; buried at Blossom Hill Cemetery (Concord, NH); once said, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”
Ronald McNair (October 21, 1950-January 28, 1986): physicist; worked for Hughes Research Laboratory (Malibu, CA); nationally recognized for his work in the field of laser physics; second African-American in space (Challenger mission STS-41-B); black belt in Karate and saxophonist who worked with composer Jean Michel Jarre; posthumously awarded Congressional Space Medal of Honor; buried in Lake City, South Carolina.
Ellison Onizuka (June 24, 1946-January 28, 1986): Lt. Colonel, US Air Force (1970-78, posthumously promoted to Colonel); pilot, flight test engineer and aerospace engineer; graduated AFROTC from Colorado University; first Asian-American in space (Discovery mission STS-51-C); awards include Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Meritorious Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal; posthumously awarded Congressional Space Medal of Honor; in the TV series “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” one of the Enterprise shuttle-craft bears his name; buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Honolulu, Hawaii).
Judith Resnik (April 5, 1949-January 28, 1986): Ph. D., Electrical Engineering; second American female and second Jewish individual in space, worked on NASA projects while employed at RCA; also worked for National Institutes of Health and Xerox Corp.; flew on maiden voyage of space shuttle Discovery (STS-41-D); recruited to US astronaut program by Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura of Star Trek fame); posthumously awarded Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Francis Richard “Dick” Scobee (May 19, 1939-January 28, 1986): Lt. Colonel, US Air Force (1957-78); aviator and aerospace engineer; flew as a combat pilot in Vietnam War; USAF test pilot after the war for the F-111, C-5 and other aircraft; piloted space shuttle Challenger mission STS-41-C; awards include Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and (posthumously) Congressional Space Medal of Honor; buried at Arlington National Cemetery
Michael J. Smith (April 30, 1945-January 28, 1986): naval aviator; posthumously promoted to Captain; graduate of US Naval Academy 1967; flew the A6 Intruder in the Vietnam War (USS Kitty Hawk); later served two deployments to the Mediterranean Sea aboard the USS Saratoga; logged flight time in 28 different types of aircraft; awards include Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, 13 Strike/Flight Air Medals, Navy Commendation Medal, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star and (posthumously) the Defense Distinguished Service Medal and Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-107)
On February 1, 2003 the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry as a result of damage to the vehicle’s Thermal Protection System that was sustained during launch. All seven crew members were lost. They were:
Michael P. Anderson (December 25, 1959-February 1, 2003): Lt. Colonel, US Air Force (1981-95); physicist; USAF pilot who flew the EC-135, KC-135 and T-38A; flew on space shuttle Endeavour mission STS-89 to Space Station Mir; numerous awards include Defense Superior Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Achievement Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, National Defense Service Medal and (posthumously) Defense Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Space Flight Medal and Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Laurel Blair Salton Clark (March 10, 1961-February 1, 2003): US Navy Captain; doctor and zoologist; Navy diver; Naval Submarine Medical Officer/Diving Medical Officer with Submarine Squadron 14, Holy Loch, Scotland; performed medical evacuations from US submarines and worked with Navy SEALS; became Naval Flight Surgeon for a USMC AV-8B Harrier Night Attack Squadron; earned Navy and Marine Corps. Commendation Medal with two Gold Stars and National Defense Service Medal; posthumously awarded Defense Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Space Flight Medal and Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
David M. Brown (April 16, 1956-February 1, 2003): US Navy Captain; naval aviator/flight surgeon 1984-96; doctor and biologist; flew the A-6E Intruder in the Western Pacific (USS Carl Vinson, USS Independence); also flew the F/A-18 Hornet and T-38 Talon; awards include Meritorious Service Medal, Navy and Marine Corps. Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal and (posthumously) NASA Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Space Flight Medal and Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Kalpana “KC” Chawla (July 1, 1961-February 1, 2003): Ph. D. Aerospace Engineering; Indian-American who came to the US in 1982; second Indian and first Indian-born woman in space; worked at NASA Ames Research Center as VP of Overset Methods, Inc.; flew on space shuttle Columbia mission STS-87; posthumously awarded NASA Space Flight Medal, NASA Distinguished Service Medal and Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Richard D. Husband (July 12, 1957-February 1, 2003): Colonel, US Air Force; mechanical engineer; USAF test pilot who tested the F-4 and F-15; flew as an exchange test pilot with the Royal Air Force, testing the Tornado, Hawk, Hunter and other RAF aircraft; logged flight hours in over 40 different aircraft types; flew on mission STS-96 aboard space shuttle Discovery (first shuttle docking with the International Space Station); awards include Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Aerial Achievement Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal and (posthumously) NASA Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Space Flight Medal and Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
William C. McCool (September 23, 1961- February 1, 2003): Commander, US Navy; graduated second in his class (Applied Science) at US Naval Academy 1983; aeronautical engineer, test pilot and naval aviator who flew the EA-6B Prowler; awards include Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal and (posthumously) NASA Space Flight Medal, NASA Distinguished Service Medal and Congressional Space Medal of Honor; buried at the US Naval Academy Cemetery
Ilan Ramon (June 20, 1954- February 1, 2003): Colonel, Israeli Air Force; born Ilan Wolferman; computer engineer; Israeli fighter pilot and first Israeli astronaut; changed last name upon joining IAF (customary among Israeli pilots); flew the A-4, Mirage III-C, F-4 and F-16 (1974-98); youngest pilot involved in 1981 air strike against Iraq’s unfinished Osiraq nuclear reactor; 37 pages from his in-flight diary miraculously survived the break-up of Columbia; posthumously awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal, Chief of Staff Medal of Appreciation and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor (the only non-American recipient to date); buried in Nahalal, Israel.
May these brave souls, who dared touch the stars on behalf of all mankind, rest in peace.
“There’s always a possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, of course; this can happen on any flight; it can happen on the last one as well as the first one. So, you just plan as best you can to take care of all these eventualities, and you get a well-trained crew and you go fly.”
— Gus Grissom (Apollo 1), December 1966