Apollo 1 was on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy, Florida, in a full dress rehearsal when fire broke out in the command module and suffocated Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Challenger was in flight and exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, while Columbia disintegrated on re-entry.
In each instance, the cause of the disaster was determined after lengthy investigations and fixed. As a result, the successive flights were safer. We can try to take as much risk as possible out of the equation of manned spaceflight, but it will always be there. We cannot ever forget that these lessons learned were at the cost of human lives.
Other NASA astronauts who have been killed include: Mike Adams, the first in-flight fatality of the space program who died as he piloted an X-15 rocket plane on Nov. 15, 1967; Robert Lawrence, Theodore Freeman, Elliott See, Charles Bassett and Clifton Williams, who were lost in training accidents; and Manley “Sonny” Carter, who died in a commercial aircraft crash while on NASA business.
Spaceflight and space exploration are risky businesses. But the rewards of discovery and furthering human knowledge are worth the risk. A new generation of manned spacecraft, Orion, and the rocket to launch it, Space Launch System, are being built and prepared for flight in the next few years. Orion and SLS have the capability of going to the moon, asteroids and Mars. Right now, NASA has its sights on a manned Mars missions in the 2030s, but the new White House administration has yet to make its space intentions known.
I was just at Kennedy Space Center, having been there last in 2013. New construction abounds with a new KSC headquarters building, Space X leasing fabled Launch Pad 39A and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin commercial complex. It was all gratifying to see.
Humanity needs to leave this planet to explore new worlds in our solar system and perhaps, someday, planetary systems orbiting stars other than our sun. To not do so dooms the fate of humanity to extinction.
With each new manned mission and step forward, let us always remember those who gave their lives exploring the final frontier.