On Jan. 27, 1967, astronauts Ed White, Roger Chaffee and “Gus” Grissom (a native of Mitchell, and the namesake of Grissom Air Reserve Base) were less than a month away from their Apollo 1 mission. The three-man crew was loaded in the cabin to conduct a test on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Suddenly, a fire broke out in the small, oxygen-filled spacecraft. In an instant, all three perished. This tragedy 53 years ago this month became the deadliest incident in the then young history of the NASA Astronaut Corps. A handful had perished before in this pursuit, but this accident resonated throughout the country.

Thirty-four years ago this month, another, even more lethal calamity took place, this time with the eyes of the world upon it. On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated just 73 seconds after liftoff. Suddenly, Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith and Dick Scobee were gone.

Yet again, disaster struck our spaceflight program 17 years ago next month. On Feb. 1, 2003, Rick D. Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark and Ilan Ramon died when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry to the atmosphere.

This is, of course, only a partial list of those who left us in the pursuit of human exploration. But we should take these combined anniversaries as an opportunity to honor them all.

Taking humans to space and returning them to Earth is an utterly mind-boggling proposition if you stop to think about it. On balance, it’s amazing so few have lost their lives while reaching toward the stars. But for those who have sacrificed themselves in this endeavor, we thank you. We won’t forget your sacrifice.

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