I thought I’d share a humorous little anecdote that is probably indicative of what the average American knows about our legacy in space. Before I do that, though, allow me to set the scene.
Today begins a week on the calendar which reminds us that going into the black is never something to be taken for granted. On this date in 1967, a flash fire in the command module during a test on the launch pad claimed the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Tomorrow, January 28, will mark the 33rd anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after launch with the loss of her entire crew: Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe. And Friday, February 1, will mark the anniversary of the 2003 loss of Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.
Over the years, I have written fairly extensively about these events and the astronauts whose lives they claimed, since I believe very strongly that it is indeed a rough road that leads to the stars, and if we do not continue to dare to push farther into the black, then these brave, extraordinary men and women will have died in vain. If you’d like to read any of my previous posts, just search the January and February archives on this site.
This year, however, I’d like to discuss, however briefly, this week of somber anniversaries within the context of our larger mission here at Take Back the Sky, which is to convince Elon Musk’s commercial space company SpaceX to name its first Crew Dragon after Serenity, the ship in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi television series Firefly and subsequent motion picture Serenity.
While it is true that we want SpaceX to name the first Crew Dragon Serenity after a ship from science-fiction, in much the same fashion that the first space shuttle was named Enterprise after the starship from Star Trek and SpaceX’s workhorse booster rocket the Falcon 9 was named after the Millenium Falcon of Star Wars fame, there is more to the name Serenity than a reference to a space western with a cult following, and at times like this, that becomes apparent.
If you google the noun “serenity,” you will find that it means “a state of being calm, peaceful and untroubled.” The word itself suggests balance and harmony, with no hint of turmoil or conflict. This is, of course, precisely the state of being we hope the late astronauts of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia have now found. Though the phrase “rest in peace” may have become almost cliché in this era of social media tweets and soundbites, when I hear the word “serenity,” I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for the Canadian rock group Rush, who wrote in the song Presto, “I am made from the dust of the stars, and the oceans flow in my veins” or the words of the English poet Sarah Williams, who wrote, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” I believe that if the next spaceship to carry US astronauts into space from American soil were to bear the name Serenity, its name would, among other things, serve as a living, working memorial to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to further our understanding of the stars. And as the first privately built, privately owned spaceship to carry US astronauts into space as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, it would send a message that we not only hope they are at peace, but that we, the people, fully intend to carry on their mission– that they can rest knowing we have the watch now.
SpaceX completed its static fire of the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon on January 24, and the ship’s unmanned demonstration flight is expected to take place next month. If you agree with me that Serenity would be a good name for the Crew Dragon, to honor those astronauts we’ve lost or for any reason, now is the time to write a letter or postcard to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell to let them know you want to see the ship bear that name. You can find the address for SpaceX as well as some tips for contacting them on the “Take Action” page of this site.
And whether you choose to contact SpaceX or not, don’t forget to say a prayer, light a candle, lift a glass or do whatever you personally find to be appropriate this week to honor the memory of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia.
Ad astra, per aspera.
“Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand. I don’t care, I’m still free. You can’t take the sky from me. Take me out to the black, tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back. Burn the land and boil the sea, you can’t take the sky from me. There’s no place I can be, since I found serenity. You can’t take the sky from me.”– Joss Whedon, The Ballad of Serenity
Since the earliest days of this site, I have written annually about a very somber week in the space community. That week begins today, with the anniversary of the flash fire that occurred on the launch pad during an Apollo 1 test 51 years ago, killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Tomorrow will mark the 32nd anniversary of the mid-launch explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which claimed the lives of astronauts Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Francis (Dick) Scobee, Ronald McNair, Mike Smith and Ellison Onizuka. Just four days later, on February 1, we will see the 25th anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated during re-entry with the loss of astronauts David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon.
Over the years I have written so much about these men and women, their bravery, their sacrifice and their willingness to give their lives if it meant that humanity would come one step closer to a future in which living and working out in the black was a regular part of our daily existence. (If you’d like to read any of it, simply search this site’s archives for any given year in the months of January and February.) As this week of remembrance approached again this year, I realized that I really didn’t have anything new to say that hadn’t already been said about them. I felt that at this point, if there is any one thing that bears repeating, it is that they should be remembered as heroes. Big. Damn. Heroes. Every one of them.
So this year, I would simply like to call your attention to how NASA has decided to honor these astronauts, the crew of Challenger in particular.
Every year, we observe a week of very rough anniversaries in the space community. It begins on January 27, the anniversary of the flash fire that killed three Apollo 1 astronauts in the cockpit of their capsule during a launch pad test in 1967. The following day, January 28, is the date on which the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during launch in 1986, killing all seven crew members aboard. The week of remembrance concludes today– February 1, the date on which the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry in 2003, again claiming the lives of all seven crew members.
This year, the brave astronauts who were lost in all three of these accidents were remembered at a special ceremony at Cape Canaveral on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, at which the original hatch from that Apollo 1 capsule, long kept in storage and out of the public eye, was unveiled for the first time as part of a new display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex designed to honor America’s fallen astronauts and remind all of us that it is indeed a rough road that leads to the stars.
Over the past four years, we at Take Back the Sky have written at length about these tragedies and the brave men and women who lost their lives as a result of them. (You can find those posts by searching the January/February archives on the home page.) As we honor their memory again this year, it’s both appropriate and important that we recognize that their bravery went beyond a mere willingness to risk their lives, and was instead a willingness to die trying on behalf of the whole human race.
Of course, a large part of the legacy of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia is that they led to improvements in the vehicles and techniques used to send people into the black, which in turn made subsequent missions both safer and more efficient. But their legacy also serves as a reminder to us that if we are to become a multi-planet species, then going to space has to be something for which we’re willing to pay the ultimate price. We will always mourn the loss of brave, intelligent men and women, but if we as human beings truly wish to live among the stars, then we must believe that doing so is important enough that we are also willing to die there. Fortunately for us, and especially for future generations, the men and women of NASA’s Astronaut Corps understand that and still hold to it with every fiber of their being. That’s just one of the many things that makes them the “Big Damn Heroes” that they are.
So, as we honor the memory of Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, Ed White, Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Laurel Clark, let us be thankful that their are still men and women like them, heroes whose mettle is summed up so eloquently in the words of the English poet Sarah Williams:
“Take me out to the black. Tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back…” — The Ballad of Serenity
If you’re a space enthusiast like us, the days between January 27 and February 1 are a difficult stretch. That’s because each year we’re forced to observe a hat trick of anniversaries we wish we didn’t have to see on the calendar– a somber series of dates that remind us that it is indeed a rough road that leads to the stars.
This past Wednesday, January 27, was the anniversary of the flash fire on the launch pad during a test in 1967 that claimed the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger Chaffee. And last Thursday, January 28, marked the 30th anniversary of the day on which Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during launch, killing astronauts Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik, as well as Christa McAuliffe, a New England school teacher who was to have become the first educator in space as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space Project. This Monday, February 1, will be thirteen years since Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere and astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon perished.
Here at Take Back the Sky, we’ve written at length about these tragedies and the heroes we lost as a result of them. (If you’d like to read more, check out our archived blogposts from October 2012 and January 2015.) This year however, we’d like to honor the memory of all of these brave men and women by taking a look at the groundbreaking work that one of them was to have done out in the black.
Over the next six days, there will be three very somber anniversaries in the space community. That six-day stretch began today, as on this date in 1967, three Apollo 1 astronauts died in a flash fire during a launch pad test. Tomorrow will mark the anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger’s explosion during launch in 1986, a tragedy that claimed the lives of all seven astronauts on board. And then of course this Sunday, February 1, will be the twelfth anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the seven astronauts of her crew, all of whom perished when the vehicle disintegrated during reentry.
For more about these tragedies and the heroes we lost as a result of them, you can read our World Space Week blog post from October 8, 2012.
These tragic accidents, like the one that claimed the life of a Virgin Galactic test pilot last year, serve as a reminder that leaving this planet is never easy, and that traveling and working in space will never truly be “safe.” But each of these men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of space exploration believed that going out to the black was something worth risking their very lives for, and ultimately they did it for us, for our children and for those future generations for whom travel into Low Earth Orbit will be no more extraordinary than an airline flight from New York to Berlin is today.
And for those of us who will never know what it’s like to break atmo, the least we can do to show our gratitude is honor their memories. May they rest in peace.
Ad astra per aspera…