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NASA commemorates three space tragedies

The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire is the focus of this year's memorials, but NASA also pays tribute to the fallen shuttle astronauts from Challenger and Columbia.
A closeup view of the exterior of Apollo 012 Command Module at Pad 34 showing the effects of the intense heat of the flash fire which killed the prime crew of the Apollo 1 mission. Astronauts Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee lost their lives in the accidental fire.
A closeup view of the exterior of Apollo 012 Command Module at Pad 34 showing the effects of the intense heat of the flash fire which killed the prime crew of the Apollo 1 mission. Astronauts Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee lost their lives in the accidental fire.NASA / JSC file
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Forty years ago Saturday, three NASA astronauts died while testing an experimental spacecraft that would one day ferry explorers to the surface of the Moon.

But on Jan. 27, 1967, Apollo 1 commander Gus Grissom and astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee were not in space. The three men were tucked inside their spacecraft atop a NASA launch pad in Florida, working through a training exercise, when an accidental fire swept through the vehicle.

“What we had were three good guys that paid the price with a spacecraft that was not so good,” former Apollo astronaut Walt Cunningham told, adding that the lessons learned from the Apollo 1 accident help safeguard future moon-bound crews.

NASA will hold a memorial service marking the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center on Saturday beginning at 10 a.m. ET. The service will be broadcast live on NASA TV.

The Apollo 1 service is the beginning of a somber trio of space tragedy anniversaries for NASA.

On Sunday, the space agency will mark the 21st anniversary of the 1986 loss of Challenger’s STS-51L crew, while Feb. 1 marks the fourth year since the 2003 loss of Columbia orbiter and seven STS-107 astronauts during landing. NASA’s annual Day of Remembrance to honor the three crews and all astronauts, cosmonauts and agency employees who have died, is set for Monday.

Cunningham, who served on the Apollo 1 investigation board and later flew as a lunar module pilot on NASA’s next manned mission — Apollo 7 in October 1968 — will speak during the ceremony, along with other NASA officials and Apollo 1 crew family members.

“He was the ideal big brother,” Lowell Grissom said of his astronaut brother, adding that remembering the human cost of space exploration is vital. “I think it’s important to everyone, not just people who are interested in space.”

Learning from Apollo 1
Cunningham and others have credited the fact that the Apollo 1 accident occurred on Earth — rather than in space — with salvaging NASA’s Moon program. 

“We had the evidence, we could look at it,” Cunningham said, adding that once changes were implemented his Apollo 7 mission with astronauts Walter Schirra and Donn Eisele went nearly flawless. “Consequently, the flight crews benefited. We had to fix anything that was even remotely connected with it.”

The Apollo 1 fire — which investigators later attributed to an electrical arc in an equipment bay after a momentary drop in power — did prompt a complete redesign of NASA’s Apollo crew capsules, space experts said. But the fact that the accident — and subsequent shuttle failures — occurred at all remains perplexing.

“Why didn’t they get that right the first time,” said Roger Launius, a former NASA historian who now chairs the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. “Literally thousands of really smart people before that time never anticipated this, which just baffles me.”

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Cunningham, however, added that he and his fellow astronauts were fully prepared for some sort of accident, largely due to the inherent complexity of human spaceflight.

“We never expected to land a man on the moon without going through some kind of disaster,” Cunningham said. “It was asking too much to fly a perfect series of missions culminating with a landing on the moon. As I look back on it, we did a hell of a job.”

NASA is now preparing to one more return to the Moon with a capsule-based spacecraft that agency chief, Michael Griffin, has billed as “Apollo on steroids.”

“Let’s hope the lessons of Apollo will not be lost on them,” Launius said.

Lost shuttle crews honored
In addition to remembering the Apollo 1 crew, NASA will honor the last shuttle crews of both the Challenger and Columbia orbiters.

A rocket booster seal failed 73 seconds after Challenger lifted off on Jan. 28, 1986, causing the vehicle’s destruction and killing its STS-51L commander Francis “Dick” Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, mission specialists Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe — the first teacher to launch towards space.

“Christa was, is and will always be our first teacher in space,” said astronaut Barbara Morgan, who as a teacher from Idaho trained as McAuliffe’s backup and later became NASA’s first educator astronaut.

After more than 20 years of preparation and training, Morgan has a mission of her own with NASA’s STS-118 spaceflight set to launch towards the the space station on June 28. As both an educator and mission specialist, Morgan will help wield the space station and shuttle robotic arms, adding that she remained committed to flying in space despite the Challenger disaster.

“There was a lot of thinking going on, we needed to think about what it is that we did wrong and the question about whether this was worth it,” Morgan told reporters this month, adding that her drive to educate children has been a constant guide. “For me, I can’t think of anything more important than our young people, and so the decision to continue was not difficult at all.”

The Columbia tragedy
NASA’s most recent shuttle tragedy — the 2003 loss of Columbia during landing — led to the loss of STS-107 commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool and mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, David Brown, payload commander Michael Anderson and Ilan Ramon — Israel’s first astronaut.

After more than two years of recovery efforts, NASA resumed shuttle flights in July 2005, following that up with three orbiter missions to the international space station in 2006. The space agency plans to retire its remaining three orbiters — Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — after space station assembly is completed by September 2010.

“We have an opportunity to show once again that NASA can do what it says it’s going to do,” NASA chief Michael Griffin told space agency employees this month during an agency-wide update.

Griffin said the Columbia accident called into question NASA’s ability to launch astronauts into space as well as complete the space station.

“When those kinds of things are called into question, your agency is in trouble,” Griffin said. “I think, in ’06, we took those questions off the table.”

Launius said that while the nearly two decades separating NASA’s three space disasters allowed room for the agency to grow complacent, the relatively short time between the 2003 loss of Columbia and the end of the shuttle program could avoid a repeat of such behavior.

“I don’t think anyone is going to slip into a sort of nonchalance about it,” Launius said.