Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia

Yesterday saw scenes of remembrance throughout the space community as they remembered the 25th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. This came the day after the 44th anniversary of NASA’s first space disaster the fire on-board the Apollo 1 spacecraft that took the lives of the crew, and a few days before the 8th anniversary of the Columbia disaster on February 1.

While the Apollo 1 fire happened away from the cameras, Challenger was the polar opposite, thousands watched the disintegration live on TV, tragically the majority of these were schoolchildren as part of NASA’s “teacher in space” project, and millions more in the reruns on the news for the following days.Columbia likewise was the first space disaster where “Citizen journalism” became involved as home footage of the breakup were beamed into our living rooms while those watching were just dumbfounded that this could happen.

A few days after the Apollo fire Gene Kranz the now legendary flight controller (played by Ed Harris in ‘Apollo 13’) remarked that:

“Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did. From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”

In a way all 3 accidents could have been avoided, if  Apollo didn’t use 100% oxygen at pressure, if Challenger hadn’t launched with engineers concerned over reliability of the O-ring and if managers took the possibility of damage to Columbia. Hindsight is 20/20 as Apollo 1 commander Gus Grissom said “If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”  Yesterday we remembered the past, but we should always have one eye to the future.

Apollo 1, January 27, 1967

Commander Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom, USAF April 3, 1926 – January 27, 1967

Senior Pilot Edward Higgins White, II,USAF,November 14, 1930 – January 27, 1967

Pilot Roger Bruce Chaffee, February 15, 1935 – January 27, 1967

STS-51L Space Shuttle, Challenger, January 28, 1986

Commander Francis Richard “Dick” Scobee, USAF, May 19, 1939 – January 28, 1986

Pilot Michael John Smith, USN, April 30, 1945 – January 28, 1986

Mission Specialist Ellison Shoji Onizuka, USAF, June 24, 1946 – January 28, 1986

Mission Specialist Judith Arlene Resnik April 5, 1949 – January 28, 1986

Mission Specialist Ronald Ervin McNair, Ph.D. October 21, 1950 – January 28, 1986

Payload Specialist Christa McAuliff September 2, 1948 – January 28, 1986

Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis USAF August 24, 1944 – January 28, 1986

STS-107 Space Shuttle, Columbia, February 1, 2003

Commander Rick Douglas Husband USAF July 12, 1957 – February 1, 2003

Pilot William Cameron “Willie” McCool USN September 23, 1961 – February 1, 2003

Mission Specialist David McDowell Brown USN April 16, 1956 – February 1, 2003

Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla July 1, 1961 – February 1, 2003

Mission Specialist Michael Philip Anderson USAF December 25, 1959 – February 1, 2003

Mission Specialist Laurel Blair Salton Clark USN March 10, 1961 – February 1, 2003

Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon IAF June 20, 1954 – February 1, 2003

Oh I have slipped the Surly bonds of Earth, and with outstretched arms, touched the face og God


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