“I watched other men walk on the Moon, and return safely, all from the confines of Mission Control and our house in Houston. I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?”
– Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) narrating at the end of the movie, Apollo 13
This is a sad time of year for those connected with the American Space Program. It should be a time of remembrance for all Americans.
January 27th is the anniversary of America’s first great loss of human life related to space exploration. On that day, 48 years ago in 1967, the Apollo Space Program’s first planned manned flight, the Apollo 1 command module caught fire during a pre-launch test.
On January 28th, 29 years ago in 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff.
And then on February 1st, 12 years ago in 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart while reentering earth’s atmosphere.
Here is a list of those command module and shuttle crew members, those heroes who lost their lives in pursuit of that grand challenge of space exploration.
What started as just wanting to check up on the test flight accident of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo from a few months ago (October 31, 2014), I got to thinking, and remembered that the anniversary of the Shuttle Challenger tragedy was in January. It wasn’t until I pursued further, that I realized the anniversaries of the Apollo 1 disaster and the Columbia shuttle tragedy were also within a few days of the Challenger anniversary.
Last October two civilian test pilots, Michael Alsbury and Peter Siebold were flying SpaceShipTwo, evaluating a new and more powerful Hybrid rocket engine. Early in the flight, SpaceShipTwo broke apart, killing Michael Alsbury. Miraculously, Peter Siebold survived.
After the Apollo 1 accident, it was a hugely courageous act to fly on the next Apollo mission, and the next, and the one after that. Again it took an act of immense daring for each of those who chose to fly shuttle missions after the Challenger blew up and again after Columbia. It’s always been a courageous act, an act of bravery for these men and women who stepped up to the challenge.
Astronauts have been to the moon and back. An International space station has been continuously occupied for almost 15 years. What’s next?
As Astronaut John Glenn said at the beginning of the Mercury program, predecessor to America’s Apollo program, “This whole project with regard to space is like the Wright Brothers standing at Kitty Hawk about fifty years ago, with Orville and Wilbur pitching a coin to see who was going to shove the other one off the hill, I think we stand on the verge of something as big and as expansive as that.”
Now the future lies further out there, in the great beyond of outer space, where mankind has yet attempted to go. Again remembering Captain Kirk’s narration at the beginning of each Star Trek episode, “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
NASA, Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and others continue to expand their reach into space in an effort to take us further from this little blue and green ball we call home. As we acknowledge the anniversaries this week of the loss of these space explorers, let’s cheer on those who come after – Michael Alsbury and Peter Siebold and others whose names are yet to written down in the chronicles of history. The explorers of that final frontier – the daring heroes pushing and probing further into space.
“We stand on the verge of something big.” – We must remember and should be grateful that heroes still exist, and they are reaching for the stars – inspiring us to do the same.
“Perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”
– Cooper, Interstellar