Today is the anniversary of the Columbia accident in which seven astronauts perished when the space shuttle ripped apart during reentry. The cause of the accident was a piece of foam insulation that had come loose from the external fuel tank as the shuttle accelerated during launch. That debris gouged a hole in the thermal tiles of the leading edge of a wing. NASA did not ask the Department of Defense for in-space images of the damage. Unprotected in one small spot, the shuttle’s skin was breached by extreme heat as it descended into the atmosphere on February 1, 2003. A prior flight in 1988 had involved similar damage, and its commander, Hoot Gibson, had expressed grave concerns about catastrophic failure during reentry.
A few days ago, the nation commemorated the Challenger accident, which occurred on January 28, 1986. The crew of seven perished during launch, just seventy-three seconds into the flight. The cause of that accident was an O-ring failure in a joint of a solid rocket booster. The rubber ring failed to seal the joint during liftoff because the overnight ambient temperature had been too cold, below the manufacturer’s recommended minimum launch temperature. Engineers like Roger Boisjoly had expressed grave concerns in the day before launch.
Less than twenty years before that, on January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 died during a test on the ground. A fire broke out and swept swiftly—in less than twenty seconds—through the sealed, pure-oxygen-infused capsule. The capsule burst, and flames spread. It took several minutes to reach the three astronauts, far too late to save them. An exact cause was never determined, though the fire started with an electrical arc in the lower part of the capsule. A later investigation indicated that, in addition to possible sources in the capsule’s equipment, an electrical arc could have been created by friction when the astronauts adjusted their positions. Experiments also determined that the seemingly miraculous Velcro that the astronauts had used by the yard to affix items to the module walls burned like holiday wrapping paper, hot and fast in the oxygen. Earlier warnings about the dangers of using a pure-oxygen environment had gone unheeded.
What seems most disheartening to us about these three accidents is that specific concerns had been raised before each catastrophe. Hindsight may be 20/20, but foresight was in no way blind to the risks—to the specific risks that caused these fatal accidents in manned spaceflight.
What seems most horrific about these three accidents is that the astronauts died quickly but not instantly. Challenger pilot Michael Smith uttered, “Uh-oh.” A couple of minutes later, the crew cabin of Challenger plunged into the ocean intact, with three of the crew having activated their emergency air packs. Because cabin pressure was lost early in the break-up, none were likely to have been conscious when they hit the water. Likewise, the crew of Columbia likely lost consciousness quickly—“within seconds,” according to NASA’s report—when the orbiter broke apart. Lethal trauma occurred when the astronauts, their lower bodies strapped into their seats, were subjected to what NASA calls “cyclical rotation motion.” The crew of Apollo 1 reported the fire, and one astronaut tried to open the hatch. The final plea from the crew of Apollo 1: “Get us out!
Today at Lofty Ambitions, we honor the three lost crews of the U.S. manned space program.
APOLLO 1: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee
CHALLENGER, STS-51L: Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnick, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, and teacher Christa McAuliffe
COLUMBIA, STS-107: Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Mike Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark
In 2003, astronaut Rick Hauck pointed out that space exploration is dangerous; 18 of the 430 people who had gone to space by that time had died. The shuttle had had two fatal accidents, as had the Soyuz capsule. While some of these spacefarers flew multiple missions, more than four percent had died on the job. The risk of death for astronauts cannot be eliminated.
Out of each of these accidents, however, came changes to equipment, astronaut training, and NASA processes. Time was taken to understand the flaws in the system, whether they lay in an O-ring or the ways in which engineers’ concerns were overridden by managers. Sending human beings beyond Earth’s atmosphere is a fraught and mighty accomplishment. In Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer—the 90th anniversary of his birth was yesterday—wrote, “[I]t was that he hardly knew whether the Space Program was the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity.”
As the British poet Robert Browning wrote in 1855, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?”