by Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward
On January 25, NASA and our extended NASA Family will pause to remember the astronauts who lost their lives in service to our country.
The Day of Remembrance was instituted by then-Administrator Sean O’Keefe in 2004. He decreed that the last Thursday in January would be set aside to remember the astronauts who gave their lives in the line of duty.
This year will mark the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, 32 years since the Challenger accident, and the 15th anniversary of the loss of Columbia in East Texas. All three tragedies occurred within a one-week period in late January and early February, hence the chosen date to hold the Day of Remembrance.
NASA employees and the space community will gather in various places across the country, most near the NASA centers, with common feelings of reverence, respect, and appreciation. We will honor all 24 fallen heroes with speeches and other such memorials—some formal, some less so, but all with the dignity one would expect, and deserved by those we celebrate.
It’s a time to think and thank…
And so it will be again this year. For those of us on the Space Coast, the ceremony is always held at the Space Mirror at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Dedicated in 1991 by Vice President Quayle, the black granite wall, 50 feet wide by 42 feet high, carries the names of the 24 astronauts who died in the line of duty. Their names are laser-cut through the 2.5 inch thick panels for all time and for all to know.
The Astronauts Memorial Foundation administers the memorial among its other very worthy initiatives including educating America’s youth through innovative educational technology programs. I was recently asked to serve on the Board of the Foundation, a call for which I feel deeply honored.
This year’s memorial event starts at 10:00 am Eastern Time, if you’re in the area and would like to attend. It begins in the Center for Education building adjacent to the Rocket Garden. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend.
We hope you will pause and thank our lost astronauts for their sacrifices, no matter your location or connection with them.
On a personal note, these ceremonies invariably leave me with the two dominant feelings I believe most other people experience:
- I admire the astronauts and their families, and
- I hope the number of fallen comrades stops at 24.
Fairly simplistic I know.
The important thing is, how does #1 manifest itself to make sure #2 happens? That’s better left as the subject for one or more follow-on posts, as it gets complicated pretty fast. It gets into some very fundamental questions about exploration, safety, experience, value, and values.
For now I choose to simply embrace #1 and #2, and remember my friends privately.
— — — — — — —
On the morning of Saturday, January 28, 1967 I was a 10-year-old boy riding with my family in our van in Naha, Okinawa. I vividly remember hearing on Armed Forces Radio that the crew of Apollo 1 had just perished in a fire. My father pulled over to the side of the road. My sisters and I went silent. None of us could believe it. The loss of my astronaut heroes devastated me every bit as powerfully as the assassination of President Kennedy just three years earlier. I worried that our space program had just ended. I was too young to appreciate the resolve of the country and NASA to continue moving forward despite the horrible loss.
Exactly nineteen years later, I walked by a conference room at work where someone had turned on a TV. No one spoke. I saw smoke and vapor trails and was confused about what was going on. What seemed like an eternity passed, as I watched the replays of the fireball and vapor cloud and the solid rocket boosters careening in the sky. Apollo 1 had been an accident on the ground, but Challenger was the first time NASA had lost a crew in flight.
And we lost another seven brave souls in flight on February 1, 2003 when Columbia disintegrated over Texas. The loss of Columbia and her crew affected me perhaps even more deeply than Challenger, as the advent of the Internet and NASA’s public outreach had enabled me to follow the crew’s training and mission for months. This was a crew who I felt that I knew, even though I had never met any of them.
I started attending Spacefests and Astronaut Scholarship Foundation events in 2009. I’ve spent much of the past three years researching the Columbia accident, and now I know dozens of astronauts and other people who had worked on the Space Shuttle Program. I venerated the astronauts as a kid, and continued to put them on pedestals as an adult. But now I realize that I had never fully wrapped my head around the fact that the people who climb into space vehicles are real people with real families. True, they’re exceptionally competent and smart and brave and tough.
But they’re also really nice people with parents and husbands and wives and sons and daughters who care about them and worry about them. I never truly knew what it was like to worry about someone until I became an Army dad, and my son went on his first—and second—and third—deployment to a war zone. That’s when you begin to understand the real nature of sacrifice in the line of duty.
Our astronauts put their lives on the line every day to help make our world a better place. They have to balance the need to explore with the toll that it takes on their families.
I’m thankful that Sean O’Keefe instituted the NASA Day of Remembrance as an annual milestone that provides us the opportunity to pause and reflect on the meaning of heroism—the willingness to put aside one’s personal concerns in order to serve the greater good.
Let us be grateful to those brave people and their families for their service to our country and to humanity.