Friday, January 28, 2011

25 Years Ago Today

On January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger seemed to explode in an orange fireball over the Atlantic Ocean.  It was the almost 19 years to the day (January 27, 1967) when fire occurred in the capsule during pre-flight tests for Apollo 1.  It was following the Challenger tragedy that January 28th was designated as NASA's National Day of Remembrance. 

The Apollo 1 fire killed all 3 astronauts: Gus Grissom (one of NASA's Original 7 astronauts), Ed White (the first man to "walk" in space), and Roger Chaffee (it was to be his first mission in space).  Inscribed on a memorial plaque located on Launch Complex 34 it states "Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived."

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Apollo 1 Crew: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee

The Space Shuttle Challenger was to be a great celebration: Christina McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, was to join the astronaut crew on their mission.  Schools across the country tuned in to watch the historic event, what they were witness to instead was a tragedy of unfathomable proportions.  73 seconds into their flight, the space shuttle began to break apart and disintegrate - it was later determined that the icy temperatures that morning caused a critical structural flaw in an o-ring seal on one of the rocket boosters.  The accident killed all 7 aboard : Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnick, and McAuliffe.  That evening, instead of the scheduled State of the Union Address, President Reagan broadcasted a eulogy from the Oval Office. In closing he quoted the poem 'High Flight' by John Gillespie Magee Jr: "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God."

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Crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger

February 3, 2003 after a fairly routine mission, the Space Shuttle Columbia was 16 minutes from landing when they lost communication with Mission Control.  The Shuttle disintegrated over Texas during reentry, spreading debris across the state and into Louisiana and Arkansas.  It was later determined that a piece of insulation foam that had broken off during lift-off had created a 6 to 10 inch hole in one of the wings.  It was not uncommon for small debris to break off and hit the shuttle, however this time the damage was significant enough to allow a breach in the heat shield.  In his address to the nation, President Bush said: "mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand.  Our journey into space will go on."

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Crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia: David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon

Four years ago, on December 9, 2006,  I had the opportunity to see the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery - the first night-time launch since before the Columbia disaster.  After delays due to poor weather, to be able to sit back and watch the shuttle streak across the sky in a stream of light was awe-inspiring.  To feel the ground shudder and know that the shuttle program's days were numbered, it really makes one appreciate being able to witness even one launch.

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