Any exploration of unknown territory presents many risks to life and limb of the men and women who bravely take on the challenge. One only has to look through the history of any country during times of venturing out of the familiar. Ocean travel in small ships, pioneering across the states in wagons, climbing Mt. Everest; all hazardous and all claiming lives. Yet with the price came many gifts of knowledge, of prosperity. The same can be said about Space Exploration.
Ever since a handful of countries in our world have begun to try and put a human being up into space and safely back home again, there have been several tragedies, the most well known occurring in the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1967, both Russia and the USA suffered losses.
January 27, 1967, the Apollo 1 /Saturn space vehicle malfunctioned during a launch pad test. A spark in the wiring caused the oxygen filling the capsule to ignite. The fire spread rapidly through the command module. The astronauts tried to open the hatch to escape, but due to the slightly higher pressure inside the module than on the outside, the hatch refused to open, the force pressing in on it too great. Only when the cabin ruptured was the hatch workable. All hatches were removed from the outside five minutes after the fire had started, but the crew was already dead. Lost were Lt. Col. Virgil Grissom, Lt. Col. Edward H. White, and Roger Chaffee.
Four months later on April 23, 1967, Russia launched the Soyuz 1 into orbit. The vessel made eighteen orbits, during which numerous serious problems occurred with the ship's systems. On the fall to earth, all braking mechanisms failed. Cosmonaut Col. Vladimir M. Komarov died when the Soyuz 1 crashed into the earth.
Both the Soviets and the United States studied the reports made about the malfunctions and continued their efforts with substantial success. But on June 6, 1971, Russia sent the Soyuz 11 into space where it successfully docked with the space station Salyut 1. The three-man crew consisting of Vladislav Volkov, Georgi Dobrovolski and Viktor Patsyev, stayed on the station for 22 days. When it was time to go home, all seemed to go well. Re-entry seemed normal. Upon opening the capsule, the recovery team discovered the crew had died of asphyxiation. A faulty valve on their craft had allowed all their air to leak out into space.
In the years to follow there were a few close calls, the most well known in our country being Apollo 13. But it wasn't until 1986 that we were all reminded just how dangerous space exploration is. This was the year of the Space Shuttle Challenger. So many of us who lived through that time can clearly remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard/saw the news. The Challenger lifted off on January 28, 1986 at 11:38 am EST. It was to be a basic mission with the exciting inclusion of a teacher coming along for the ride who would give a lesson to her class from aboard the shuttle. As the people on the ground and in front of their TVs watched, they saw puffs of smoke coming from the shuttle as it raced upwards. Within 73 seconds after liftoff, at 46,000 feet, the shuttle exploded, killing all seven of the astronauts within. The right solid rocket booster leaked hot gas at one of its joints, this caused the liquid fuel to ignite and explode. It was discovered later that poor communications within NASA, as well as faulty engineering on the boosters were to blame for the tragedy. Lost were Christa McAuliffe, Francis Scobee, Michael J Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair and Gregory Januis.
Unfortunately that was not the last shuttle disaster. Space Shuttle Columbia, a veteran in space travel, lifted off on January 16, 2003, for a seventeen-day mission focusing on microgravity experiments. The time in space went well. On February 1, 2003, the crew prepared for re-entry. Unknown to them, during liftoff a piece of foam insulation from an external tank collided with one of the tiles on the underside of the left wing. The damage caused the Columbia's Thermal Protection System to fail upon entering the earth's atmosphere. The extreme heat of re-entry entered the wing through the damaged tile and destroyed the internal parts of the wing, which led to the entire shuttle breaking apart. A mere fifteen or so minutes more, they would have made it home. All seven of the crew were killed. Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, and Ilan Ramon.
It is a heartbreaking business, to loose such talented people in such a harsh way, and the deaths have caused many to wonder: Is it worth it? Yet be aware that of 2004, 439 people from different parts of the world have flown on space flights successfully. Also private companies are starting to create their own space worthy craft, notably SpaceShipOne, which made history as the first privately owned spaceship that hit orbit, and successfully returned its pilot safely to the ground. Is space still dangerous? You bet it is. But danger didn't stop any other pioneers from exploring and discovering, and it shouldn't stop us either. Human kind needs to explore and have challenges lest it falls into a kind of mental and spiritual stupor. Space contains many wonders as well as dangers, and the more we learn from our mistakes, the safer our efforts will be.