Twenty four years ago seems like yesterday. On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on its tenth mission just 73 seconds into flight. Seven souls gave their lives for their country in its goal to go beyond the world’s blue roof.

The Challenger’s “o-rings” had failed because the launch temperature had dropped below 53 °F (12 °C) which prompted warnings about the seals’ integrity that a presidential commission later found that NASA managers had ignored.

The crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-51-L, above, poses for their official portrait on November 15, 1985. In the back row from left to right: Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.

These were the first American astronauts to die since the Apollo 1 space capsule disaster on January 27, 1967. A fire erupted in the space capsule killing Mercury 7 vet Gus Grissom along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch test at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Pure oxygen in the capsule, along with a hatch that wouldn’t open, contributed to the disaster.

I was a boy in Cape Canaveral when the Apollo 1 disaster struck. The feeling of loss in my home town of 2,000 that day as I wandered the dirt roads has never left me. My dad knew Gus Grissom, who would have been the first man to walk on the Moon if he had survived. Everybody in town knew one of the astronauts or their families, or knew someone who did.

Reporting on environmental issues like aerospace-related toxins like those at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory usually focuses on the workers and community members who may have become sick or died from rocket-related contamination.

What is all too often missed is that, pollution problems aside, real men and women have given their lives in America’s bold and gallant quest to explore the heavens. These people represent the very best of this country and of this planet. Remembering our heroes, and emulating the bravery of their deeds, is their due honor.

In honoring them, we thank NASA’s finest for giving the ultimate sacrifice to advance humankind’s knowledge about itself and the great beyond. America’s astronauts are the face of the nation lifted skyward, searching the heavens for knowledge and meaning in this infinite wonder we call life.

One Comment

  1. Hey Mike,

    This is a lovely piece. I will always remember the shock of that day.

    I’m so impressed with your writing and your investigative journalism. I am currently living in downtown Sacramento, adjacent to a 70 acre UP railyard site set for infill development. It’s been quite the process forcing the clean-up. My neighborhood association has had many meetings with DTSC and our elected representatives. It just goes on and on.

    So good to see your work and smiling face.

    I still love listening to Alice Cooper!

    Happy Trails,
    Kathy Davenport

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