Remembering the Loss of America’s Space Heroes

In time, all of us will know the sting of a death of a close family member. It is a loss that one never truly gets over. But a few times in our lives, the deaths of those we don’t even know, but admire greatly, affect us in a deep and lasting way. We remember vividly the moment we heard the news … how we felt, where we were, who was with us. Some deaths affect an entire nation. We mark the event each year by asking “Where were you when …” President Kennedy was shot, the bomb went off in Oklahoma City, the planes hit the World Trade Center. 

Remembering the Loss of America's Space Heroes

These central, tragic events impact each of us differently. This time of year, as former NASA astronaut trainer and life-long space enthusiast, my mind is often drawn to the thoughts of the days we lost three heroic astronaut crews.

 Apollo 1

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On January 27, 1967, the Apollo 1 crew of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire during a routine training simulation. I wasn’t alive when this happened, but since my job at NASA was to train the astronauts to stay alive during emergencies like fires, it is a very real, impactful event in my life and one I thought about often while training future astronaut crews.  This accident was tragic, but I am comforted and inspired by the words of Grissom,

If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”


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I was in my momma’s tummy when the Space Shuttle first launched in 1981, and I had Baby Love in mine when it launched for the last time in 2011, so that spacecraft holds an extra-special place in my heart. I was an ornery 4-year-old on January 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed during launch, and it is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. I remember the feeling of not quite being able to breathe each time I saw the replay of the accident, and I still get that feeling when I see it today. Soon after, President Ronald Reagan consoled our entire nation, 

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.”


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By February 1, 2003, I had begun to realize my dream of working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. I was part of a co-operative education program working at NASA and completing my aerospace engineering degree at the University of Texas every other semester. That morning, I was back at school in Austin. I was watching and listening to the Space Shuttle Columbia landing through NASA TV on my computer. As I did every launch and landing, I was watching “with” my dad, this time, watching together over the phone. We had checked in with each other at the deorbit burn (which starts the crew’s decent to Earth) and planned to call again for the final few minutes. 

There isn’t much video to watch until the shuttle is very near landing so I remember leaving my computer to go back and lay down in my bed to listen. I started to hear CAPCOM in Mission Control calling the crew with no reply. Then the seconds ticked on. CAPCOM kept calling, “Columbia, Houston, comm check…”

The Shuttle was scheduled to land at 8:16 am and as I watched the clock in my bedroom near that time, I got a sinking feeling. I knew exactly how landing should sound. I knew what communication should be happening. I’d listened to this process my whole life. Something wasn’t right. I remember staring at my computer screen thinking that if I just looked harder, I would see the Shuttle’s outline emerge over the Kennedy Space Center runway. But then 8:16 passed.

I called my Dad. I remember saying calmly, “They are on the ground… somewhere, they are are on the ground. They have to be on the ground by now.” I wasn’t willing to make any assumptions yet, but gravity is something you can count on. And then Dad said to turn on my TV. Footage was coming into every news station of Columbia breaking up in the sky above Texas and Louisiana. That footage is another scene that will be burned in my memory forever. 

I traveled back to Houston a few days later to attend the memorial service at the Johnson Space Center. I’ll forever be grateful to President George W. Bush for being there, with the NASA family, and for encouraging an entire nation in mourning,

“Our whole nation was blessed to have such men and women serving in our space program. Their loss is deeply felt, especially in this place, where so many of you called them friends. The people of NASA are being tested once again. In your grief, you are responding as your friends would have wished – with focus, professionalism, and unbroken faith in the mission of this agency.

Captain Brown was correct: America’s space program will go on. This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart. We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation. We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness, and pray they will return. They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt.” (To read President Bush’s entire eulogy, go here.)

What is Next?

Throughout the history of time, more than 500 people have reached Earth orbit, and America has only lost 17 space heroes. I think that’s a pretty amazing statistic, and I am proud to have been a part of a program that does some of the riskiest work with the highest attention to safety. The conquest of space is worth it. We are that part of creation that seeks to understand.

This year, as I look back, and forward, I am deeply saddened that my daughters don’t have the thriving space program I wish for all of us. And I dream of a time, when once again, this nation will commit itself to achieving goals as worthy as those that took the lives of the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia crews. So today, I urge you to teach your children about the crews of Apollo 1, STS-51L and STS-107. Teach them what they lived for and what they died for. And teach them to find in themselves a desire to achieve a noble calling such as these.

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“High Flight”
by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

 Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Godspeed Gus, Ed, Roger, Dick, Ron, El, Judy, Greg, Christa, Rick, Willie, Mike, Ilan, KC, David, and Laurel. 

Now tell me, where were you when these tragic events happened?


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  1. Beautiful tribute, Penny. I was in high school, watching the Challenger launch when it happened. It is also one of my most vivid memories.

  2. What a great article and memorial.
    Thanks for sharing with us at Inspire Me Monday.
    These are truly moments that should never be forgotten.

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