“Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short…”

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The official portrait of the Apollo 1 crew. (l. to r. ) Edward White (Gemini IV, first US spacewalker on Gemini IV), Mission Commander Virgil Grissom (second US astronaut, on the Liberty Bell 7 Mercury flight, and Commander of Gemini III), and Roger Chaffee (his first space flight)

The end of January and beginning of February is always tinged with sadness for those interested in space flight, for it is within this period that the anniversaries occur of the three US space disasters that resulted in the loss of astronaut lives.

On January 28 (January 27 in the US), 1967, America’s first space tragedy occurred, with the loss of the crew of Apollo 1 during a launch simulation for the first crewed mission of the Apollo program. At that time, the race to the Moon was moving at a frantic pace and flawed design decisions sowed the seeds for disaster. On this day, the Apollo 1 crew – astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were aboard their spacecraft on the launch pad. They were conducting a launch simulation to ensure that their Command Module was fully operational. Suddenly, the astronauts radioed the ground controllers that there was a fire in the craft. Within just a few seconds, transmissions ended with a cry of pain.

Although the astronauts attempted to open the spacecraft hatch to escape, the procedure was an awkward one and the fire spread quickly, creating such pressure inside the Command Module that it ruptured, releasing intense heat and dense smoke that drove rescuers back repeatedly. When ground crews finally succeeded in opening the hatch, the crew were already dead, killed by asphyxiation from the toxic smoke inside the spacecraft.

It is believed that the fire was caused by a spark resulting from damaged insulation around a bundle of wires. In the pure oxygen, high pressure atmosphere of the Command Module, which used many flammable materials that produced toxic gases, the resulting fire virtually exploded into a conflagration. Coupled with the inward-opening hatch, which was difficult to open against the pressure inside the cabin, the astronauts had little chance of escape.

Despite this tragedy, the Apollo program emerged stronger, with a re-designed and much safer Command Module, and went on the land the first people on the Moon with Apollo 11.

The Museum’s E.A. and V.I. Crome Collection of aerospace philately and memorabilia contains some contemporary material relating to the Apollo 1 mission and its tragic loss, including this launch cover, which was originally prepared for the Apollo 1 launch, but after the tragedy was delayed and finally posted at the launch of Apollo 4 the first, un-crewed, test flight of the Saturn V Moon rocket.

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An Apollo 1 cover, carrying the cachet (rubber-stamped logo) of the US Navy recovery team that was waiting in the Atlantic Ocean to retrieve the spacecraft after its planned short orbital flight. Due to the pre-launch test accident, the cover was not posted at the time. AS 204, shown on the cover, was the initial designation for the Apollo 1 mission. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

NASA’s first in-flight fatalities occurred in 1986, during Space Shuttle mission STS-51-L On January 29 (January 28 US time), the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch, due to the failure of an O-ring seal in one of the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) used to thrust the spacecraft into orbit, causing the deaths of all seven crew members. The 25th mission of the Shuttle program, and the 10th flight of the Challenger, this disaster reminded the world that spaceflight is a hazardous undertaking, and not a ‘routine’ operation, as NASA had begun to characterise Shuttle missions.

Lost in the accident were: Mission Commander Francis “Dick” Scobee ; Pilot Michael Smith; Mission Specialists Judy Resnik; Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka; Payload Specialist, Gregory Jarvis; and Teacher in Space Participant, Sharon “Christa” McAuliffe . It had been planned for McAuliffe to present lessons for school students from on board the Shuttle to encourage student interest in science and technology.

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The STS-51-L crew, in their official crew portrait. In the back row from left to right: Ellison Onizuka (first Asian-American astronaut); S. Christa McAuliffe (first educator astronaut); Greg Jarvis(an employee of the Hughes Aircraft Company) and Judy Resnik (second US female astronaut). In the front row from left to right: Michael Smith; Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair (second Black American astronaut)

The loss of the Challenger was traced to a design flaw within the SRB joints and the particular failure of a rubber O-ring seal on the right SRB, which likely had been rendered brittle by the extreme cold weather that occurred while Challenger was on the pad awaiting launch, such that the stresses of launch caused it to crack, allowing tremendously hot gases from the SRB to escape. SRBs were composed of five segments, the joints between each segment sealed by an O-ring to contain the tremendously hot gases generated by the burning solid rocket fuel within the SRB. The hot gases escaping from the compromised joint seared a hole into the adjacent External Tank(full of liquid oxygen and hydrogen, the propellants for the Space Shuttle’s main engines) and also weakened the lower strut holding the SRB to the External Tank (ET). When the lower strut failed catastrophically, the top of the SRB swivelled to collide with the ET, the resulting rupture leading to an “explosive burn” of the liquid propellants, and the disintegration of the entire vehicle. The aircraft-like Orbiter, in which the crew were travelling, was subjected to severe aerodynamic stresses and broke into several large pieces, one of which was the crew cabin. Although the crew probably survived the initial breakup of the Shuttle, they were all killed when the Challenger’s crew cabin impacted the ocean with an acceleration well over 200g.

As it encompasses the first thirty years of spaceflight (1957-1987), the E.A. and V.I. Crome Collection also holds commemorative items relating to the 1986 Challenger disaster. Pictured below is the first philatelic cover in a series of nine issued by the Space City Cover Society in Houston, Texas (the home of NASA’s Johnson Space Centre). This cover depicts the entire Challenger crew and the mission patch. The next seven covers in the series were each devoted to an individual crew member, with the final cover released for the memorial service for the STS-51-L crew, held a few days after the accident.

The first in a set of nine commemorative covers issued to commemorate the loss of the Challenger crew. The mission patch includes a depiction of Comet Halley, which was to be studied on the mission. The name of the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, is marked with a symbolic apple

The first in a set of nine commemorative covers issued to commemorate the loss of the Challenger crew. The mission patch includes a depiction of Comet Halley, which was to be studied on the mission. The name of the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, is marked with a symbolic apple. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

The second incident to result in the loss of a Space Shuttle and its crew occurred ten years ago, when Columbia, the oldest vehicle in the Space Shuttle fleet, disintegrated on re-entry at the end of the STS-107mission, on February 2 (February 1 in the US), 2003. For the second time, a crew of seven astronauts was lost, due to inherent design flaws in the Space Shuttle system (in this case the comparative fragility of the Space Shuttle’s thermal protection system and long-standing problems with loss of the insulating foam on the exterior of the ET), coupled with an organisational culture within NASA that had become prepared to accept known risks, rather than find ways to deal with the issues, which might have caused additional expense and delays to missions.

Killed when the Columbia failed to complete her 28th flight were: Mission Commander Rick Husband ; Pilot William McCool ; Payload Commander Michael Anderson ;Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla,David Brown and Laurel Clark and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut.

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The official crew photo from Space Shuttle mission STS-107. (l to r) David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon. The mission patch emphasises the microgravity research that was the purpose of the flight.

Although it was not realised at the time, Columbia’s fate was sealed at launch, when a chunk of insulating foam, about the size of a briefcase, broke off the ET and struck the leading edge of the Shuttle’s left wing. This high velocity impact damaged the Orbiter’s thermal protection system, which protects the vehicle from the intense heat of re-entry. Although some engineers suspected that Columbia might be damaged, NASA managers limited investigations into this possibility, since little could be done to repair the tiles even if problems were found. Unfortunately, the left wing was, in fact, damaged to an unexpected extent, which allowed the superheated gases surrounding the Shuttle during re-entry to penetrate the wing and destroy its internal structure. The failure of the left wing then rapidly caused the in-flight breakup of Columbia, due to the aerodynamic stresses on the vehicle, as it travelled at a speed on Mach 22. The Orbiter disintegrated as it travelled across Texas, just 15 minutes from its intended landing at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Debris was found in parts of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

The loss of the Columbia, and the technical and organisational issues that the accident investigation brought to light, led to the demise of the Space Shuttle program, with US President George W. Bush mandating that the Shuttles should cease flying in 2010, to be replaced by a new launch vehicle. The final Shuttle mission, STS-135, actually flew in July 2011 and its successor launch vehicle is still under development, beset by budgetary, technical and political pressures.

The loss of life on any space mission is always a tragedy, and every crewed space mission should be made as safe as possible. However, spaceflight is still a risky undertaking, and we should expect that astronauts (and perhaps even space tourists) may die in future space accidents. I think we should always remember the words of US President Ronald Reagan, spoken at the memorial for the Challenger crew on January 31, 1986:

“Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain”