SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Every generation, a news event burns itself into the collective consciousness, from John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the death of John Lennon, and September 11th.
Friday, NASA is remembering three dark days in the history of human spaceflight–the launch pad fire of Apollo 1, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger just after “throttle up,” and the disintegration on reentry of Columbia.
These events are seared in the public memory as national tragedies in the truest definition of the term–heroes destroyed by the smallest flaw, a spark from a frayed wire or Velcro and nylon suits, a frozen O-ring, a piece of foam, all in the pursuit of scientific exploration.
NASA Ames Research Center will honor the fallen astronauts with a ceremony at the Moffett Field Exploration Center, while other dignitaries lay wreaths at Kennedy Space Center and Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. for the “Day of Remembrance.” An Online Remembrance is also being held.
Saturday marks the eleventh anniversary of Columbia’s disintegration. A crack in the heat shield caused by falling foam during the launch allowed super-heated gas to melt away the spacecraft’s frame during the 17,000+ mile per hour descent.
Northern California was ground zero, as the first signs of a problem manifest just after the shuttle passed over Santa Rosa. By the time Columbia was over Yosemite National Park, the temperature readings confirmed a major in-flight emergency.
Columbia mission specialist Kalpana Chawla was a local, working at NASA Ames studying vertical takeoff and landing concepts before she and six other crew members died the morning of February 1st, 2003.
While the Columbia disaster touched the Bay Area especially, the Challenger disaster may have prepared the country for the loss.
On January 28th, 1986, an entire nation of school children watched the liftoff of what was to be the first teacher in space.
The closing quotes from President Reagan’s speech eulogizing the Challenger crew may be the most powerful memory.
“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.'”