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Thursday, January 28, 2016

In Remembrance

Today, January 28, is NASA's Day of Remembrance.

This date is honored every year to celebrate the lives of, and mourn the deaths of, 17 brave astronauts who died while advancing the exploration of space. Also remembered are the lost crews of the Russian Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 11 missions, as well as others who died while advancing our knowledge of space. 

 The first loss -- Apollo 1's crew of Virgil 'Gus' Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White -- occurred on Feb. 1, 1967, in a horrible fire in their space capsule as they were training for their upcoming mission. An electrical spark ignited the pure oxygen in the sealed capsule, which created an incredible inferno. The crew was unable to escape through the closed hatch. Apollo 1 was scheduled to be the first of NASA's manned lunar landings.

The seven-person crew of space shuttle Challenger, mission STS 51-L, perished when their spacecraft broke apart 73 seconds after launch on Jan. 28, 1986, exactly 30 years ago today. Commander Dick Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, astronauts Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair and Judy Resnik, payload specialist Greg Jarvis, and payload specialist/first teacher in space Christa McAuliffe died when cold temperatures caused a failure in O rings on one of the two solid rocket boosters, allowing pressurized burning gas to reach the liquid fuel in the external tank that powered the initial phase of launch. Although I didn't yet work for NASA, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news -- at a post-op appointment following eye surgery the previous day. It's a day I will always remember.

The loss of space shuttle Columbia on mission STS 107 on Feb. 1, 2003, hit me the hardest, as I was a NASA employee then. That day is one that will forever be etched in my memory, along with the day President Kennedy was assassinated and Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the United States. 

My supervisor called me early the morning of the accident, saying simply "We've lost Columbia." I knew exactly what he meant. I replied, "Oh, no, not again." Three words -- "We've lost Columbia" -- started me crying, something I do to this day 13  years later when I think about that awful day. I immediately called our news chief at his home in San Francisco, waking him up, and telling him the grim news. We started calling our public affairs staff and asked them to report to work. 

By the time I got to work, every phone in the office was ringing. Reporters wanted to do stories live from the NASA center where I worked in northern California. They wanted 'reaction' from NASA, so we began coordinating our response with NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., making arrangements with our senior staff to speak to the news media, preparing fact sheets, talking points, etc. But all that didn't matter a whole lot. What mattered was that once again, people had died while exploring space. What mattered was that we, the NASA family, was mourning. We had no idea at that point what had caused Columbia to break apart as it streaked across the U.S. toward its planned landing at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Commander Rick Husband, pilot Willy McCool, astronauts Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson and Laurel Clark, along with Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, perished that fateful day.

Everyone was in shock. But we all pulled together to do our job. Our support staff called to offer to come to work to help with office tasks such as making photocopies and taking messages. Even one very pregnant public affairs officer showed up to help. I felt very close to that mission, as I had worked in the newsroom in Houston's Johnson Space Center for the first half of the mission, fielding media inquiries, answering questions, providing updates and arranging interviews. So when I was asked to do an interview with a local television reporter, it was all I could do to get through the interview without completely breaking down.

The American human spaceflight program is now in a hiatus, with the only Americans in space being ferried to the International Space Station via a Russian Soyuz space capsule. I would guess that few Americans even know there are Americans in space. Fewer still probably are aware of the NASA Day of Remembrance or the reasons for this sad day. 

Exploration of harsh and dangerous places is never without risk. The crews we honor today paid the ultimate price to push forward our exploration of space. Please let them never be forgotten.