The end of January and beginning of February marks the anniversary of a number of tragedies involved in NASA’s space shuttle program.
On Jan. 27, 1967, the astronauts of Apollo 1 died during a routine ground test of the capsule when an electrical spark caused a fire which suffocated them in their highly pressurized cabin. Although this accident cost astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee their lives, it led to improvements in the design of the Apollo capsules to make space travel safer for future astronauts; such as adjustments to the hatch to make escape easier, the wiring was altered to prevent future sparks, flammable materials in the cabin were replaced with flame-retardant counterparts and the pressure in the cabins was decreased, according to Space.com.
Despite the modifications made after the Apollo 1 disaster, two more accidents with deadly consequences would follow over the course of the NASA space shuttle missions.
On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, a horrific event which was observed by many across the nation, including schoolchildren and teachers who had known crew-member Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher and the first private citizen to fly aboard a space shuttle. According to Space.com, a faulty O-ring in one of the booster rockets failed and caused the explosion which would claim the Teacher-in-Space and payload specialist Christa McAuliffe, who was on board to observe and run experiments for her class, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, mission specialists Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ronald McNair, mission commander Francis Scobee and pilot Mike Smith. According to the official transcript released by NASA of the minutes leading up to the launch and subsequent explosion, the last message received by ground control before communications were lost came from Smith, who simply said, “Uhoh.”
17 years later, another cataclysm shook NASA and the nation. On Feb. 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere after a 17-day mission. All seven crew members – Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon – lost their lives when damage sustained during the launch caused foam to fall from the external tank and strike the left wing, according to NASA’s incident report.
Although many astronauts have lost their lives in the name of space exploration, their sacrifice will not be forgotten and their contributions to science have helped strengthen our knowledge and understanding of what lies beyond our planet.
Abbygail Vasas can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.