Space Now!

The Legacy of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia

Human spaceflight is inspirational and exciting, but sometimes it is right to look back on those who gave their lives over the history of this difficult endeavor.

This week in particular is a poignant time for the history of the American astronaut programme, as it includes anniversaries of three separate losses of entire crews; 27 January 1967 (Apollo 1), 28 January 1986 (Challenger Space Shuttle) and 1 February 2003 (Columbia Space Shuttle).


The American programme of human spaceflight had its first success in 1961, when Alan Shepard Jr became the first American in space, quickly followed by the second American astronaut a few months later. This second American astronaut was a man called Virgil “Gus” Grissom, later to become the Command Pilot for the first planned flight in the Apollo programme.


The Apollo 1 mission never left Earth; during a training mission on 27 January 1968 all three astronauts, “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, were inside the spacecraft as a fire erupted and they could not escape.


Unsurprisingly the Apollo programme was put on hold as investigations and safety improvements were made, and the first manned flight happened as Apollo 7 almost two years later, in October 1968.


Most recently of the three, the Columbia Space Shuttle encountered disaster when attempting re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere on 1 February 2003. None of the seven crew members survived; Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon. This occurred because of damage done to the spacecraft during launch when a piece of thermal insulation foam broke off and struck Columbia’s left wing.


Although the Mission Control team knew the foam had been damaged, they weren’t aware of the damage it had caused on the underside of the wing and so concluded that Columbia was safe for re-entry.



The Challenger Disaster of 1986 is the incident that holds the greatest significance to me, as even though it occurred before I had even been born, the legacy of that event lives on in the form of Challenger Centres, here at the National Space Centre and around the world.


The Challenger Space Shuttle broke apart entirely only 73 seconds into its tenth launch, due to a problem with its solid rocket booster engines, on 28 January 1986. All seven crew members died, Greg Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J Smith, Dick Scobee and the first member of the Teacher in Space project, Christa McAuliffe.



Challenger Centres were set up by the families of these astronauts to continue inspiring children (and adults) with space exploration by giving them a chance to experience simulated space missions. It is through leading these experiences that I see the ongoing excitement towards space exploration, and it reminds me of the inspiration and determination humanity possesses.


Each one of these events has a different story and a different context but ultimately the same outcome, the tragic loss of human life. Are these events enough reason to wind down any human spaceflight programme, to prevent future loss of life? Or is it part of human nature to constantly strive to travel further and faster in order to discover more, even if that comes with the possibility of loss?


As a final thought, I will leave you with a quote from “Gus” Grissom from a 1966 interview. He said:


“There's always a possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, of course; this can happen on any flight; it can happen on the last one as well as the first one. So, you just plan as best you can to take care of all these eventualities, and you get a well-trained crew and you go fly.”


He quite clearly believed that the possibility for casulties wasn’t a reason good enough not to go, and I think that’s a message we can also take into our daily lives; go for it, attempt difficult tasks and at least you have the potential to achieve amazing things.

From our Blog:

When we are not busy running a Science Centre, hosting events, teaching children and generally being... busy, some of our team also work with the magazine All About Space, to answer your questions all about space!


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