America’s first space station, Skylab, was the brain child of Werner Von Braun, the rocket scientist the U. S. had harvested from the Nazi rocket program.
Skylab had three missions through the seventies, during which the astronauts involved completed numerous experiments which advanced the space program. More missions were planned, utilizing the nascent Space Shuttle Program.
Skylab’s orbit began to deteriorate, and plans were made to boost its trajectory using the Space Shuttle or other options. Delays in the Shuttle Program made the recovery efforts untenable, and on July 11, 1979 the space station re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke apart…mostly. NASA managed to guide it away from populated areas…mostly. The debris fell into the Southern Indian Ocean, and onto Western Australia.
The event was a media sensation, due to a great deal of uncertainty regarding where Skylab would come down…onto your house in the mid west? The ocean? New York City? For weeks the impending doom was the subject of television specials, political cartoons, selling gimmicks, you name it. After the demise, the jurisdiction in Australia where some of the debris fell sent NASA a fine of $400 for “littering” as a joke.
NASA announces the identities of “The Mercury Seven”, America’s first astronauts.
Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton, 3 from the USAF, 3 from the USN, and one Marine.
The seven, all test pilots, had been selected from over 500 applicants after arduous testing. The astronauts had to have at least a bachelor’s degree and among other specs, could not be over 5’11” tall so they could fit into the space capsules.
They would take flight in all of the space missions through the space shuttle program. 36 years later, Senator John Glenn would become the oldest astronaut to fly a mission (so far) at age 77.
The crew of Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Edward White II and Roger Chafee are performing a test launch in the command module of their craft when fire breaks out.
The test was considered to be a no risk event, as fuel had not yet been loaded. However the capsule was filled with a volatile level of oxygen and too many flammable materials. The escape hatch design required too much time for removal in the event of emergency.
The astronauts had expressed concerns about the safety of the craft during previous testing, going to the effort to provide the project’s chief with a photo of them praying in from of a model of the capsule, “It isn’t that we don’t trust you, Joe, but this time we’ve decided to go over your head.”
The testing had been paused more than once that day to work on issues, such as Grissom’s mic being stuck open. At 6:31 PM the astronauts first reported a fire in the cockpit. With a matter of seconds they spoke of it twice more. The fire spread quickly in the small space, killing all three men.
Autopsy results indicated all three died of cardiac arrest from high concentrations of carbon monoxide.
Grissom, White and Chafee were the first courageous astronauts to die in the NASA program, but they would not be the last. With all of the dangers involved in the new frontier, it is amazing NASA has the safety record it does.
Today in History, July 20: 1969 – The day the Earth stood still. Over a billion people world wide stopped what they were doing to watch in awe as Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. It had been a decade long odyssey, begun with JFK’s comments that it should be done before the end of the 60’s decade. So much has been gained from America’s space exploration. I was a seven year old boy laying in the living room floor, allowed to stay up late and watch this happen on our black and white TV. First “The Eagle has landed”, then….