By Jeff Olson
“Space, the final frontier…to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Sound familiar? It should to many of you because it was the opening lines to the original Star Trek television series back in the mid-late 1960s. It also reflected the spirit of the American space program which saw its greatest growth during that decade. When we think of this program, the first thing that comes to mind for most of us is man’s first step onto the surface of the moon in July 1969.
For those of us who remember that day, and for those who have seen videos of it and/or read about it in history books, we will likely never forget the words of Neil Armstrong, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” There are many who consider this event as America’s greatest moment. Perhaps so, but at the very least it was the high point or watershed moment of America’s (and man’s) journey into the final frontier, and a source of inspiration which reached well beyond the space program. It is important for us to understand and acknowledge though that, amid this and all the other achievements, progress and glory that arose from the journey toward and into this frontier, there was a price paid – in mistakes, in lessons learned, and most consequentially-in human life.
The names of those who gave most may have slipped from the newspapers and textbooks, but their contributions and sacrifices should never slip from our memory or from the annals of American history. As of 2018, there have been over 30 American aviator and astronaut fatalities during test flights, training for space missions, and space flight. Of course, there have also been tragic losses of other such professionals from other countries as well, but here I will highlight those American astronauts who gave all during this week in our history.
Fifty-three years ago this week, January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee died in a fire aboard their Apollo I spacecraft while training at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Thirty-four years ago this week, January 28, 1986, the shuttle Challenger exploded within 73 seconds of its launch, killing all seven crew members: Greg Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, Michael Smith and high school teacher Christa McAuliffe. Seventeen years ago this week, February 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia disintegrated in flames over Texas en route to a landing at Cape Canaveral. All seven astronauts aboard died: Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and IIan Ramon.
As tragic as these and the other losses were, they were certainly not in vain. Much was learned which would improve space flight and the safety of future astronauts who would build upon the successes of these astronauts and others. In all, their lives represented the best of America’s creative and limitless spirit of imagination and bold and relentless spirit of curiosity, innovation and courage. Their contributions have been enormous, including advances in medicine and other technologies which have improved, enriched and lengthened the lives of everyday folks like you and me. And, we certainly must not leave national defense and security out of the advantages of staying on the cutting edge of space technologies and advancements.
President Ronald Reagan gave a most poignant farewell from a grateful nation to those we lost on the Challenger: In closing he stated, “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. 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.” No, we must never forget these or all the other aviators and astronauts who paid the ultimate price in their quest to explore the skies and ultimately – The Final Frontier.