Space enthusiasts know that today marks the start of a 6-day period on the calendar which includes three tragic dates in the history of manned space flight.
Today is the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, which took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee on January 27th, 1967.
Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger‘s explosion during take-off on January 28th, 1986, which killed astronauts Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. I was watching this launch on a break room TV in Quantico, Virginia with fellow Marines/classmates, and we all just sort of stood there, dumbstruck, as we watched the events unfold.
Next Tuesday will be the 8th anniversary of the loss of the shuttle Columbia, which broke up during re-entry on February 1st, 2003, killing astronauts Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon. Kevin called me on that Saturday morning, asking if I was watching television, and I couldn’t believe it when he told me what he was watching. I followed the coverage for the rest of that day, unable to tear myself away from the TV.
2011 will include several happier milestones, as well. First and foremost, April 12th will mark the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight, when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched and completed a single orbit of the Earth aboard Vostok 1 in 1961. The United States would follow with its first manned suborbital flight on May 5th, with astronaut Alan Shepard and Freedom 7.
February 3rd will mark the 45th anniversary of the first landing of a man-made vehicle on another celestial body, accomplished when the Russians’ Luna 9 soft-landed on the moon in 1966.
EDIT: As I was reminded earlier this evening, April 12th marks the 30th anniversary of the first launch and mission for the first space shuttle to actually go into space, Columbia, in 1981. It was to be the first of 27 successful missions for the shuttle, before its fateful 28th mission in early 2003.
December 3rd brings with it the 40th anniversary of the unmanned Russian lander Mars 3, the first such vehicle to land on Mars, in 1971.
These are just a few of the more significant accomplishments since the “dawn of the Space Age.” In and around them are numerous successes, both in space and on the ground, which served to expand our knowledge of the vast universe around us. We’ve taken the first tentative steps, but there’s so much more out there, just waiting for us.
But, as we celebrate the triumphs, we must also remember and learn from the tragedies, in the hopes that such sacrifices in the name of expanding human knowledge are not made in vain.