“Take me out to the black, tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back…”
— Joss Whedon, The Ballad of Serenity
On this date 53 years ago, a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34 killed all three Apollo 1 crew members– Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White II (the first American to walk in space), and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee.
In what can only be described as a cruel coincidence, the anniversaries of the other two most costly disasters in the history of the US space program both fall within a week of today’s. Tomorrow will mark the anniversary of the 1986 explosion during the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger that claimed the lives of her seven crew members– Commander Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judith Resnik, Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis, and Payload Specialist and pioneer teacher in space Christa McAuliffe. This Saturday will mark the anniversary of the disintegration of Space Shuttle Columbia during reentry, which claimed the lives of her crew of seven– Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, and Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark and and Ilan Ramon (the first Israeli in space).
The names of these heroes are always worth repeating, and we at Take Back the Sky have written at length about these catastrophes over the past eight years. If you’d like to read any of our previous posts during this rough week of remembrance, you’ll find them if you conduct a simple search of our January and February archives of years past. If you’ve already read our previous articles, then might I suggest you observe this year’s anniversary by reading an NPR feature that was written on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy.
Though some of our younger readers may not have been born yet when these disasters occurred, those of us who were alive to experience the shock of hearing the news (or even seeing them live on television) will never forget where we were and what we were doing at the time. It would be easy to draw parallels to what many people experienced yesterday when they learned of the sudden and tragic deaths of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash in California.
However yesterday’s fatal crash, while equally tragic, will not lead to the grounding of all helicopter flights. The Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents did cause the suspension, at least temporarily, of the nation’s space program, and they certainly ignited debates as to whether or not sending men and women to space was too risky an endeavor.
In a 1962 speech at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy famously said of the Apollo program, “We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” President Kennedy understood that it would be a rough road that would lead to the stars, but that traveling that road would bring out the very best that America has to offer on behalf of all humanity. The astronauts who perished on the launchpad in the Apollo 1 capsule and in space aboard Challenger and Columbia understood it too.
It is encouraging that SpaceX and Boeing will soon send US astronauts into space once again in American spaceships launched from American soil as part of the Commercial Crew Program, and NASA recently announced ambitious plans to return to the Moon and eventually press on to Mars. To those who would still insist that sending astronauts out to the black is too risky or too expensive, I can only respond that the risk and the expense are not only an investment in the future of mankind, but also the only truly fitting way to honor the memory of the brave men and women of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia. It will be the crews of ships like Crew Dragon, Starliner and Orion that will carry on their legacy, and as long as we let them take back the sky, then the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia will not have died in vain.
Ad astra per aspera…