Tuesday, February 02, 2016


There have so far been three fatal disasters in the US space program, and though separated by decades, they each happened within five days of each other on the calendar year, in late January and early February.

They also represent three of the four parts of a space voyage.  Apollo 1 was running a pre-launch test on January 27, 1967. when fire ignited, killing astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chafee.  The Challenger space shuttle exploded moments after lift-off (pictured above) on January 28, 1986, killing its seven crew members.  And on February 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entering Earth's atmosphere after a successful voyage, killing its crew of seven.  There has yet to be a major disaster in the main part of the voyage, in space.

The anniversaries are naturally noted at this time of the year.  This year the media focused on Challenger, since it was the 30th anniversary.  For a few moments on that morning in 1986, the Challenger crew and I were in the air at the same time.  I was a thousand or so miles north, flying into Portland, Maine.  When I disembarked for a speaking engagement, the people who met me had ashen faces.  When they told me the shuttle had exploded, at first I thought they meant the New York to Washington shuttle.  I hadn't known that Challenger was going to be launched that day (it had been delayed before). Aboard Challenger was Christa McAuliffe, a teacher in neighboring New Hampshire.  Lots of children watched the launch, and the shuttle disappearing in smoke a minute or so later.

Gus Grissom, one of the astronauts on Apollo 1, was the second American in space, a major contributor to the Gemini program, and slated to be the first human to set foot on the moon.

 I was in high school when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, the next Mercury mission after Grissom.  I was editor of my high school newspaper, and from a magazine I copped a photo of the seven astronauts with Alan Shepard (the first American in space), Grissom and Glenn together at the end,  clipped everybody off except those three, and printed it with a brief celebratory story.  I sent copies of the story to all three.  All three replied in some fashion.  Grissom sent a letter and enclosed the clipping I'd sent.  At first I was taken aback, until I noticed that under each figure in the photo was a signature.  He not only signed it himself, but got Shepard and Glenn to sign it as well.

Each of these disasters had causes both mundane and mysterious.  Apollo 1 had a number of fairly outrageous design flaws that combined to seal the fate of the astronauts, but the actual source of the fire itself was never found.  Columbia's fate was sealed by what current astronaut Mark Kelly describes in his memorial this week as "a pizza box-sized piece of insulating foam" that had flaked off the spacecraft, dooming its re-entry.

The Challenger disaster, attributed to tiny O rings that failed because of the cold during launch (although that's been disputed since), had the most protracted and public evaluation.  I followed it and wrote about it at the time, but until I read this article last week I was unaware that politics may have played a part--President Reagan reputedly wanted to refer to the teacher in space during his State of the Union address, so Challenger was launched despite the engineers who pleaded for a postponement because of the cold.

If there is anything in common in the causes of these disasters, it might be the flaws in communication and decision-making at least as much as technical flaws.  Each catastrophe resulted in better spacecraft and procedures.  But all three were avoidable, and so even as we remember the fine people who were lost, these disasters should haunt the process as it continues.  With the necessary audacity, we need humility.

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