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Starts With A Bang

Remembering the fallen heroes of spaceflight

Memorial day is a time to remember veterans killed in the line of service. These spaceflight heroes deserve to be remembered, too.
Photo of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion
This iconic but horrifying photo shows the moment that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, less than 2 minutes after launch. The great achievements we've made in exploring the Universe, as a species, have always come with an immeasurable cost that has claimed the lives of many brave explorers.
Credit: AP Photo/Bruce Weaver
Key Takeaways
  • In all of human history, under 700 people have been to space, and only 24 have ever escaped from the bonds of Earth’s gravity.
  • Although all 24 astronauts who journeyed to the Moon survived their trip, including all 12 Moonwalkers, many before and after them were killed in service to humanity.
  • These fallen heroes now belong to the ages, and it’s upon their legacies that we continue to push the frontiers of human exploration to the stars.

Exploring new territory is always costly.

Moon landing
This image, from January 31, 1971, shows sunrise from Alan Shepard’s 12 o’clock pan taken near the Lunar Module at the start of EVA-1 (moonwalk). Without the Sun glare, we can see some detail on the Cone-Crater ridge. The flag, S-Band antenna, ladder, and the LRRR (Laser Ranging Retroreflector) are all located in the west footpad. The MET (Modular Equipment Transporter) has not been deployed and is still folded up on the MESA (Modular Equipment Stowage Assembly).
Credit: NASA/David Harland

We walked on the Moon, but only after great sacrifice.

T-38 Talon over Edwards Air Force Base
First flown in 1959, the T-38 Talon has been a workhorse aircraft for training space pilots for over 60 years, although a number of training accidents in the 1960s claimed the lives of several early astronauts before humanity ever ventured to the Moon.
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Four T-38 Talon astronaut/trainee pilots perished in the 1960s:

Memorial NASA astronaut Ted Freeman
Ted Freeman, US Air Force Captain, was the first NASA astronaut to perish in training. A 1964 accident involving a T-38 Talon aircraft claimed his life, as it later did to three other astronauts prior to the start of the Apollo program, including the original prime crew for the Gemini 9 mission.
Credit: NASA (L), Anne Cady (R)

In 1967, the infamous Apollo 1 fire occurred.

Apollo 1 astronauts AMS
Apollo 1 astronauts Roger Chaffee (left), Ed White (center), and Gus Grissom (right) inside the Apollo Mission Simulator (AMS) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1967. A fire inside the capsule killed all three men.
Credit: NASA

All three astronauts,

  • Gus Grissom,
  • Ed White,
  • and Roger Chaffee,

were burned alive.

remains Apollo 1 fire
This photo shows a close-up of the interior of the Command Module, charred beyond recognition, in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire from January, 1967. The pure oxygen environment inside the capsule rapidly turned a spurious spark into a large fire. Grissom, White, and Chaffee all perished quickly, but gruesomely.
Credit: NASA

Later in 1967, astronauts Michael J. Adams and Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. succumbed in accidents.

US Air Force Major Robert Lawrence
Air Force Major Robert Lawrence was the first black astronaut: selected in June of 1967 to join the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) as part of the Air Force. He was killed on Dec. 8, 1967 in an F-104 crash during a training exercise at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

Neil Armstrong barely escaped death during training in 1968.

However, humanity persevered; just two years later, lunar landings were achieved.

moon landing Apollo 11
Apollo 11 brought humans onto the surface of the Moon for the first time in 1969. Shown here is Buzz Aldrin setting up the Solar Wind experiment as part of Apollo 11, with Neil Armstrong snapping the photograph.
Credit: NASA/Apollo 11

All 24 lunar-bound astronauts safely returned to Earth.

Apollo 11 astronauts Nixon
The Apollo 11 crew, after safely returning to Earth from their historic voyage to the Moon, are shown in the Mobile Quarantine Facility alongside then-President Nixon. All 24 astronauts who journeyed to the Moon, either orbiting or landing on it, were safely returned to Earth.
Credit: NASA/JSC

No further American space-related fatalities occurred until January 28, 1986.

space shuttle challenger disaster
Just under 1 minute into the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger, a plume of flame appeared just above the exhaust nozzle of the solid rocket booster. This breach in the motor casing was an early sign that something was wrong with Challenger, which would experience further breaches and would explode in a matter of seconds after this photo was taken.
Credit: NASA

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger killed all 7 astronauts:

  • Gregory Jarvis,
  • Christa McAuliffe,
  • Ronald McNair,
  • Ellison Onizuka,
  • Judith Resnik,
  • Francis Scobee,
  • and Michael Smith.
NASA space shuttle challenger crew
Clockwise, from top left to lower left, are 1986’s Space Shuttle Challenger crew astronauts Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Dick Scobee, and Michael Smith. All 7 astronauts perished in the Challenger shuttle disaster.
Credit: NASA

From 1986-2001, four other NASA astronauts were killed in aircraft crashes:

astronauts Morgan Caldwell
ISS Astronauts Barbara Morgan and Tracy Caldwell pose with a photo of Patty Hilliard Robertson, a member of their astronaut class who was killed in a training accident in 2001, between them.
Credit: NASA

Finally, all of Space Shuttle Columbia’s crew perished during re-entry on February 1, 2003.

debris from Space Shuttle Columbia
On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry, whose debris horrifyingly illuminated the sky some 200,000 feet over Tyler, Texas. All seven astronauts on board were killed just minutes before their expected landing.
Credit: Scott Lieberman/AP Photo

Rest in peace to:

  • Michael Anderson,
  • David Brown,
  • Kalpana Chawla,
  • Laurel Clark,
  • Rick Husband,
  • William McCool,
  • and Ilan Ramon.
Space Shuttle Columbia crew
The 7-member astronaut crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s STS-107 mission, in front of a T-38 Talon training aircraft, are standing in height order: from L-to-R, are Husband, McCool, Brown, Clark, Ramon, Anderson, and Chawla.
Credit: NASA

All future endeavors owe an unpayable debt to these fallen spaceflight heroes.

Artemis 1 sls launch
The launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, carrying the Orion spacecraft, occurred on November 16, 2022. The Artemis mission will bring humans to the Moon for the first time since the end of the Apollo program a half-century ago.
Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

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