As we do every year at this time, today the entire NASA Family pauses for a Day of Remembrance to reflect on the legacy and memory of our colleagues who have lost their lives advancing the frontiers of exploration. We owe them a deep debt of gratitude and respect.
This year marks 50 years since the tragic loss of the Apollo 1 crew. I was privileged to join the families of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee at an event honoring the astronauts’ lives, and to view a tribute to them now open at the Apollo/Saturn V Center of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, so that people from around the world can be reminded of the accomplishments of these pioneers and be inspired to pursue their own milestones. I am also honored today to visit the graves and memorials to the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia crews and pay my respects on behalf of the NASA Family at Arlington National Cemetery.
We have chosen a tough and unforgiving business, and our mistakes are displayed in the most visible and often tragic ways, but it is the hard work and aspirations of real people striving every day that make our successes possible and also make it possible for us to learn from and overcome our failures. The crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia exemplified a pioneering spirit that helped us get where we are today, and we will carry that spirit forward in advancing tomorrow’s missions. Those crews, and all of the men and women who have lost their lives extending the bounds of our capabilities while working for NASA, will not be forgotten.
The memorial plaque at the dismantled Launch Complex 34 where the Apollo 1 tragedy occurred, reads, “Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived.” We remember all of these crews for their accomplishments in pushing the boundaries of exploration. We also remember their families and the sacrifices they have made.
On a personal note, I often worry the lessons of the past can be lost. While I am extremely proud of how we safely closed out the shuttle program and continue to fly crews in our aircraft and the International Space Station today, it’s been 14 years since the Columbia tragedy, and roughly 45% of NASA’s current workforce wasn’t working for the agency then. Further, we are entering a new era with our industry partners taking on the responsibility to bring our crews to low Earth orbit.
How do those of us who experienced these tragedies and the subsequent recoveries ensure the lessons are passed on as we continue our exploration journey? The best way I know is for us to share our stories – not in PowerPoint – but personally. Perhaps in a branch meeting this month, a member of your team or from another team can be invited to share their personal story around one of the accidents and the return to flight efforts. I encourage those who are new to listen closely to these stories of tragedy, recovery, and return to flight. Perhaps then all of our team will begin to understand the reason we strive for a culture of speaking up with concerns, and a culture of leaders who stay curious and hungry as they make the ultimate decisions to send our crews on their journeys.
That’s what the Day of Remembrance is about for me – honoring these fallen heroes and learning from the past, while looking forward with the power of our minds and hearts united toward discovery. Thank you all for your dedication and hard work in honoring the legacy of these giants whose shoulders we all stand on every day.
Godspeed, Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia, and the other NASA Family members lost in this grand pursuit of discovery and exploration.
On Jan. 27, 1967, veteran astronaut Gus Grissom, first American spacewalker Ed White, and rookie Roger Chaffee were sitting atop the launch pad for a pre-launch test when a fire broke out in their Apollo capsule.
The investigation into the fatal accident led to major design and engineering changes, making the Apollo spacecraft safer for the coming journeys to the moon.
Just 73 seconds after launch on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, a booster engine failed and caused the Shuttle Challenger to break apart, taking the lives of all seven crewmembers.
President Ronald Reagan eulogized the crew, quoting from the poem "High Flight": "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"
The seven-member crew of the STS-107 mission was just 16 minutes from landing on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, when Mission Control lost contact with the shuttle Columbia. A piece of foam, falling from the external tank during launch, had opened a hole in one of the shuttle's wings, leading to the breakup of the orbiter upon re-entry.
Addressing the nation, President Bush said, "mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on."