Reaching For The Stars: NASA’s 60th Anniversary

On January 27th, 1967 Roger B. Chaffee went to Cape Kennedy Air Force Station in Florida. He expected yet another test for the space program he was part of. Its title had initially been AS-204, before it was renamed Apollo 1.

In preparation for the Moon landing, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, mostly known as NASA, wanted to send Chaffee and two of his colleagues, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and Ed White, on a low orbit test flight to space.

But first that test flight needed tests of its own, down on Earth. When Roger B. Chaffee drove to pad 34 of the base that Friday, half a century ago, he expected a launch rehearsal. Little did he know that he would never head to space and that he had only hours to live.

The three Air Force pilots turned astronauts entered the Apollo 1 Command Module at around 6 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time. Once they were inside, all so-called umbilical chords, meaning cables and other connections, were removed. NASA needed to know how the module would behave on its own.

Then, suddenly, a fire broke out. Roger B. Chaffee, Virgil I. Grissom and Ed White were burned alive.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Photo: NASA

After the deadly catastrophe, NASA, several commissions and even the U.S. Congress were determined to find answers quickly. They found out an electrical spark had caused the fire. The material used and the pure oxygen atmosphere in the module helped spread the fire quickly. A rescue was impossible since the module’s hatch could not be opened due to the high pressure inside.

Looking back today, it is clear that Chaffee, Grissom and White were not the only ones who gave their lives for space exploration. On January 28th, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, in front of the eyes of the world. Seventeen years later, on February 1st, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on the way back to Earth.

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This is the sad side of the history of NASA, which started sixty years ago, in October of 1958. In spite of the tragedies, in which 17 astronauts died, it is safe to say that the American government organization has brought forward our knowledge of space and other planets more than any other entity in any other country.

“Holy Shit, Man Walks on Fucking Moon”, a headline by the American satire website The Onion read. Their extremely funny piece about alleged radio communications between NASA in Houston and the Apollo 11 astronauts gave readers paroxysms of laughter. Making fun of one of the most important space exploration moments ever? Why not?

The Moon landing, which everyone remembers watching live on TV, including those who had not even been conceived yet on July 20th, 1969, was as stunning as if aliens had landed in front of the Capitol in Washington D.C.. Humans stepping onto a celestial body other than Earth? This kind of news item is definitely hard to beat.

Not only thousands of NASA scientists and astronauts, but also the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his determination, and even the Soviet Union, deserve credit. Without the Space Race which the latter led for a while, America might not have “put men on the Moon” that quickly.

Eugene Cernan was the last man on the Moon, the guy who switched off the lights on December 14th, 1972. He died in January of 2017. Many years ago, the author of these lines did an interview with him, in which Cernan demanded a continuation of NASA’S Moon exploration. He also said he did not always think of his Apollo 17 mission when he saw the Moon at night. But often he did.

The end of the Moon flights, 46 years ago, was not the end of excitement. Sure, once in a while Washington D.C. decreased NASA’s money supply. At times, those political decisions forced the Space Administration to think small. But even at those moments, the brilliance of NASA became evident.

Talking about small: NASA even became likeable in a different way when it named a tiny Mars robot after Sojourner Truth, a Black abolition activist and feminist who lived from 1797 to 1883. ‘Sojourner’, a remote-controlled vehicle with a weight of only 11 kilograms (or 25 lb) and some exciting functions, was deployed to Mars by a space rocket on July 5th, 1997.

Seven days was the lifespan NASA set for the robot and its batteries, but it actually worked for 85 days. Not only did ‘Sojourner’ conduct important experiments with the dust it found on Mars, but it delivered tons of more than fascinating photos of the Red Planet. It shot those with its two onboard cameras and sent them to Houston. Not bad for a small shoe box like ‘Sojourner’.

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