It was late morning on January 28 when a space shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral. Onboard the spacecraft were seven astronauts: four veterans of the stars and three rookies. Just 73 seconds after liftoff, an o-ring on the solid rocket booster failed, tearing the vessel apart. The crew, likely alive and possibly conscious, helplessly fell back to the Earth, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean at 200 times the force of gravity. There were no survivors.
It has been 30 years since the ill-fated launch of the Challenger space shuttle. Each year on the anniversary of the disaster, NASA honors these fallen seven with a Day of Remembrance, along with the other astronauts who have died in the quest for human space exploration.
Investigations after the disaster would indicate that the lowest temperature the o-ring was rated to work in was 40 degrees. It was 18 degrees the morning of the launch. The launch should have been scrubbed until it was warmer, but previous delays and public pressure influenced the bad judgment to go ahead.
The crew of the Challenger was not at fault for what happened, but they knew there was the possibility for anything to go wrong.
They chose to suit up anyway.
The Challenger disaster is not the only tragedy that has befallen NASA in its history.
Almost nineteen years earlier to the day in 1967, a training exercise ended in disaster for the crew of the Apollo 1 mission; what was to be the first mission in preparation to go to the moon. Gus Grissom, who had already become a celebrated astronaut following the Gemini missions, Ed White, the first American to perform a spacewalk, and Roger Chaffee, an eager and qualified rookie, were lost due to a fire inside the capsule.
Most recently, NASA mourned the loss of seven astronauts in 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. Debris damaged the wings during the launch, which were then unable to withstand the heat and friction of coming back from space. The crew was less than 20 minutes from touching down after their two-week-long mission.
Space exploration is dangerous; no two ways about it. Astronauts are willing to put their lives on the line in an effort to advance the limits of human exploration. They believe the risks are worth it, as the benefits of success are immeasurable.
While the United States has been relying on Russia to bring astronauts to space since the end of the shuttle program, astronauts will be once again launching from American soil beginning in 2017. NASA is also looking to push the boundaries of human space exploration once again, with manned missions to Mars beginning in the 2030s.
The road to Mars and beyond is sure to be fraught with challenges, but there will undoubtedly be brave and willing individuals to take them on. That drive to push every boundary is deep within all of us.
"Exploration is in our nature," Carl Sagan once said. "We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars."
To honor the lives of those we have lost, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will be at Arlington National Cemetary to lay a wreath, and some NASA institutions across the country will be holding remembrance ceremonies as well.
NASA has also created tribute videos to honor the crews of these three missions, which can be viewed on their website.
These brave people lost their lives while pushing the boundaries of human accomplishments. We need to learn from these tragedies to ensure that those mistakes do not happen again. Their memories should not be forgotten and we should honor their legacies by continuing to support human endeavors into space.
To the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia: Godspeed, and thank you.
Cover image: NASA