Days of Remembrance for Space Exploration

 Gus Grissom’s Words Still Ring True

space exploration losses
A memorial to fallen astronauts left on the Moon by Dave Scott and James Irwin during Apollo 15. It honors 14 astronauts who had died by that time and remains as a reminder of the astronauts aboard Challenger, Columbia, and others who have lost their lives during space exploration and training. Courtesy NASA.

Space exploration has its calendar of successes…and failures. Late January and early February each year mark the sad anniversaries of three major U.S. space missions that ended tragically with loss of astronaut lives. They commemorate the loss of the crew in the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967, the Challenger mishap and seven lives lost on January 28, 1986, and the breakup of Columbia upon reentry and the loss of astronauts on February 1, 2002. Each one taught NASA tough lessons and forever proved Gus Grissom’s prophetic words right: “If we die, we want people to accept it,” he said. “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.”

His words came true not very long after he said them, underlining the fact that going to space is not easy.

The Loss of Life in the Pursuit of Space Exploration

The U.S. isn’t the only country to experience space tragedies. The Soviet Union lost a cosmonaut to a parachute failure in 1967 and three cosmonauts in 1971 when they asphyxiated on the way back to Earth after a mission. Those were serious blows to their space program, and details about what happened took a long time to come out.

Ground-training tragedies also struck the U.S. and Soviet Union. Apollo 1 was one such incident. There were also aircraft crashes that killed a number of astronauts in the U.S. and Soviet Union. One tragedy involved a fire in a pressure chamber. In each one, technical hubris came back to haunt the space program. It led to the mishaps that took people’s lives during space missions. That’s the nature of technology; it serves us well when we use it right. But, if we take shortcuts or cut costs or overlook possible problems, technology can come back to bite us in ways that we will never forget.

It Will Happen Again

It’s almost a certainty that others will die in space mishaps in the future. Loss is a part of the way forward, unfortunately. Space exploration is not an easy task. The technologies involved can fail, be sloppily built, or simply not be up to the task we thought they could. Moon missions, orbital missions, Mars trips, it doesn’t matter. It will happen. What defines us is our reaction to the next Challenger or Columbia or Apollo 1. 

The painful evaluation after the fact defines who we are as space-faring civilizations. It doesn’t really matter whose space agency it happens to; it could be China or the U.S. or Russia or the Europeans or the Indians. The point is, these things will happen. Each agency will need to be honest about what happened so that future accidents don’t happen for the same reasons.

Knowing EXACTLY what happened and why is the ticket forward. It will help the next astronauts who put their lives on the line. Whether they are headed out to build a colony on the Moon, mine an asteroid, or set foot on the Red Planet, it’s the least we can do.

For those interested in learning more about the men and women who have given their lives in pursuit of space exploration, read the book “Fallen Astronauts,” by Colin Burgess and Kate Doolan. It’s a somber, well researched book and worth the time to read.

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