Throughout the storied history of the U.S. space program, which put a man on the moon, sent unmanned satellites into the farthest reaches of our solar system and inspired generations with the heroic deeds of dozens of astronauts, there have been moments of heartbreak. In 1967, three astronauts were killed when a fire broke out in the first Apollo capsule during a prelaunch test; in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds after launch, taking the lives of all seven crew members; and in 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated while attempting re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
This week, NASA is honoring their memory with tributes and dedications highlighting the extraordinary courage and valor of those lost. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Jan. 28 laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery as part of the space agency's Day of Remembrance, while President Barack Obama issued a statement commemorating those who have lost their lives in the pursuit of space exploration.
"Throughout history, we have seen that achieving great things sometimes comes at great cost, and we mourn the brave astronauts who made the ultimate sacrifice in support of NASA missions throughout the agency's storied history," Obama's statement said. "We pause to reflect on the tragic loss of the Apollo 1 crew, those who boarded the space shuttle Challenger in search of a brighter future and the brave souls who perished on the space shuttle Columbia."
This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the loss of the Challenger and its crew, which disintegrated shortly after launch when a booster engine failed. The accident claimed the lives of all crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, the first candidate for NASA's Teacher in Space program. Following the accident, then-President Ronald Reagan eulogized the crew with a widely remembered speech that included a quote from the poem "High Flight" by World War II pilot John Gillespie Magee:
"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives," Reagan said. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved good-bye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"
The seven-member crew of Columbia was just 16 minutes from landing on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, when Mission Control lost contact with the shuttle. A piece of foam falling from the external tank during launch, which opened up a hole in one of the shuttle's wings, was determined to be the cause of the accident.
"NASA has learned hard lessons from each of our tragedies, and they are lessons that we will continue to keep at the forefront of our work as we continuously strive for a culture of safety that will help us avoid our past mistakes and heed warnings while corrective measures are possible," Bolden said in a statement. "The legacy of those who have perished is present every day in our work and inspires generations of new space explorers. Every day, with each new challenge we overcome and every discovery we make, we honor these remarkable men and women."