No one has ever died in space. If you read Cosmic Chatter regularly, you've probably seen me use these words in reference to our remarkable safety record in space. But that doesn't mean going to space is without risks - far from it. Astronauts have died on their way to space; they've died returning home from space; they've even died whilst training to go to space. Today, NASA remembers 17 fallen heroes - men and women who gave their lives so that their country could explore the heavens.
The word hero is bandied about far too frequently these days. But, astronauts are heroes in the classical sense of the word. They willingly - even eagerly - embark upon endeavors knowing full well that their lives will always be in danger. They are brave in a way that few of us ever are or ever can be: if they do everything right, they'll end up strapped atop a giant bomb headed for nature's most inhospitable environment. Talk about a tough day at work.
While I don't doubt that NASA has always prioritized the safety of our astronauts, I suspect their vulnerability wasn't at the forefront of anyone's mind the day Gus Grisssom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee arrived at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 34. After all, this was to be just a quick test; launch was still a month away. The third new space capsule in only eight years, the Apollo Command Module was the pinnacle creation of a nation that seemed to be doing everything right in space. It took only a moment for tragedy to strike. A small electrical arc, its source never discovered, ignited something in the cabin. In the capsule's pure oxygen environment, the fire spread almost instantaneously. With the cabin door bolted in place, the three crewmen never had a chance.
The story would be nearly the same for Challenger and Columbia. In the stresses of spaceflight, even the smallest imperfections - a brittle O-ring or a damaged heat tile - are instantaneously magnified to catastrophic levels. Despite all we might do to mitigate the risks, the specter of disaster has always loomed before he who would venture beyond the atmosphere.
While NASA has never been blameless in these accidents (investigations would show that Apollo 1 and Challenger were preventable), the agency has always showed remarkable transparency and resolve in the face of tragedy. Three times the United States has lost a crew, and three times we've emerged with a better, safer space program that continues to pioneer today.
So, as we remember today these heroes, let's not forget those who continue to help us push the frontiers of human exploration. Not just the astronauts who put their lives on the line, but the engineers who design the safest spacecraft they can, the technicians who build them to the highest precision, and the support staff who work long hours to make sure that tragedy never strikes again.
To visit NASA's memorial page, click here.