NASA Honors its Fallen Heroes
published during a waning gibbous moon.

Ad astra per aspera (Through hardships to the stars)


2015 was arguably one of the best years as far as space exploration goes. We got our first look at Pluto, landed on a comet, and much more. So far, 2016 is shaping up to be an even more incredible year. We can’t look forward to the future and what’s to come without reflecting on the past and what it took to get here. That’s why every year at this time, NASA takes the time to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could reach the stars.

NASA honors the brave men and women who gave their lives in the pursuit of exploration with a national day of remembrance. Events are held every year on January 28th across the many NASA centers to honor the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. All three tragedies occurred within one week of each other over a 36-year period: Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967; Challenger on January 28, 1986; and Columbia on February 1, 2003.

The skies over Cape Canaveral wept today as a crowd gathered at a memorial ceremony at Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center to pay their respects to 24 fallen heroes who gave their lives in the name of exploration. These intrepid explorers knew the risk involved in spaceflight and felt it was worth it.

“24 brave souls gave their lives in the name of exploration and we are gathered here today to honor them,” said Thad Altman, Florida senator. “This year the memorial falls on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. We all remember that very, very cold winter day. However, out of the tragedy was born success, the fact that we’re right under Atlantis, and completed the ISS. Both shuttle accidents and Apollo tragedy taught us a lot and enabled us to move forward.”

On that frigid January morning, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing the crew of seven: Commander Francis “Dick” Scobee; pilot Mike Smith; mission specialists Judy Resnik, Ron McNair, and Ellison Onizuka; and payload specialists Greg Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.

Nineteen years earlier, as we were preparing to go to the Moon, a tragic fire broke out in the command module during a test launch for what would have been the first crewed Apollo mission. Flames engulfed the capsule, and all three men—Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White—were killed.

These three men and the families who survive them are also honored each year on January 27th during a special ceremony at the pad where the fire broke out. Unfortunately this year the event was moved indoors due to inclement weather. Nearly 100 people—a mixture of family, friends, NASA employees, service men and women, and media—gathered together to celebrate the three lives that were lost nearly half a century ago. Three candles were lit (one for each man) and then extinguished at the time of their deaths (approximately 6:31 pm).

Gus Grissom, the second man in space and Apollo 1 commander, is quoted as saying, “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.”

He was not the only one to feel that way. The crew of Challenger and the crew of Columbia also felt that strongly about their work. The seven member crew of Columbia were lost at the very end of their mission thirteen years ago. As the orbiter re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, plasma entered the vehicle through a fracture in the orbiter’s left wing that was unknowingly damaged during launch.

These three dates are defining moments in our history and like any good student would, we have embraced the lessons learned. They show us that exploration is not without risks, but the rewards are worth it. They show us we can learn from our mistakes and never give up. “We will never let these heroes down,” Cabana said during the ceremony. “We stand on their shoulders, and feel the crews urging us forward in our endeavours. To strive to be better, and to expand our knowledge of our universe.”

As we embark on a new era of human spaceflight these words, spoken by former president Ronald Reagan thirty years ago still ring true. “The future doesn’t belong to the faint hearted, it belongs to the brave.”

These yearly memorials are the perfect opportunity to pause and reflect on why we explore space and why we should never forget these 24 brave men and women. Their legacy lives on and they continue to inspire future generations.


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