February 2022

February 01, 2022 Posted by: Richard Fefferman

To Boldly Go...

It was Saturday, February 1, 2003, a cold winter day. I was stationed at the Old Courthouse that day, meeting the few visitors who were out and about early in the morning. Shortly after nine o’clock, a phone call from my wife was relayed to me from our office. She told me that the news media had reported that the Space Shuttle Columbia was “late” for its landing at Cape Canaveral, concluding its latest mission. I thought for a second and shook my head. I knew that it was NOT possible for a shuttle landing to be late, at least not safely. I was aware that once the Shuttle’s orbital maneuvering engines fired, placing it out of orbit for reentry into the atmosphere, the shuttle was basically a glider (some called it a “falling brick”) and could only maneuver a bit to stay on course. Either it would land successfully and on time… or not. Indeed, it was soon realized that the Columbia had in fact broken up high over Texas and Louisiana, well before landing. With the accident taking place some forty miles above Earth’s surface, it was completely non-survivable. Funerals for the seven fallen astronauts- Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Lauren Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon- were held over the next few weeks.

Like most people old enough to remember, my thoughts turned to another catastrophe that had occurred seventeen years earlier, almost to the day, on a very cold Tuesday morning- January 28, 1986. Whether it was because it was the first accident in many years, occurred in-flight, or because it claimed the life of “teacher-in-space” Christa McAuliffe, the Challenger catastrophe immediately became one of those “what were you doing when…” moments in history. Unfortunately, these moments never seem to be good. In my personal case, I was getting my hair cut when the disaster was announced on the radio that was playing in the barber shop. And of course, like everyone else, as soon as I could, I found my way to a TV to follow the disaster coverage. By 1986, the Space Shuttle program was five years old, and the fatal Challenger disaster was the twenty-fifth launch. Mission launches were now routine enough that they were no longer shown live on all the main TV networks, so most people did NOT see the disaster live as it happened. Unfortunately, because McAuliffe was scheduled to teach lessons while in space, the launch coverage was piped into many of the nation’s classrooms, so that the children could cheer her on. Along with Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, and Michael J. Smith perished.

Going back even farther, my family always had shown a great interest in the space program. As mentioned in this space before, I remember the Apollo 11 moon landing, which occurred when I was just short of eight years old, very well, as my parents let me stay up to see it. I also remember following the other Apollo missions, and even some of the earlier Gemini program. I don’t think my parents had the heart to tell me about the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967, which claimed astronauts Roger Chafee, Gus Grissom, and Edward White, during a test. I don’t remember learning about it until much later.

It has often happened in the field of human endeavor that those who make the history don’t always get to celebrate. Sometimes this is because the endeavor was dangerous, or it could also be that the endeavor itself was the cause of harm to others. At Gateway Arch National Park, we try hard to keep this perspective. Westward Expansion helped create the country that we have today, and to St. Louis becoming the gateway that the Arch represents and our Museum expresses. However, this story also should reflect upon the cost of resources wasted, the way of life of many people destroyed, while others had little or no opportunity to share in the benefits of westward expansion.

In the case of the space program, I think and hope that most would agree that the benefits of advancements in science and technology and achieving the human desire to explore, are worth the risks. As President Reagan said, “the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave.” Although he surely was referring to the Challenger Seven in his speech in the aftermath of the tragedy, Reagan’s remarks are perhaps valid for an even larger sphere. He said, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye, and “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”


Very large black granite stone, angled to reflect the sun’s rays.  White lettering includes the names of twenty-five astronauts who have died as of result of American space activities.
Space Mirror, part of the Astronauts Memorial, Kennedy Space Center

Courtesy of NASA

Last updated: February 1, 2022

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