Chapter 14. Remembering the fallen

Many men and women have lost their lives during spaceflight and for this reason have been commemorated by the media and by the general public. However, there are also many people who were selected as astronauts or cosmonauts and worked on these missions but died before reaching space. Their sacrifice and their contributions are often neglected, and the fate of one of them was made public only several years later, when the secrets of the Soviet space program were exposed.

The In memoriam section of the preface to this book listed the names of these forgotten spacefarers; here is some information about them, as a supplement to the details already given in this book for some of these brave men and women.

Michael James Adams

Figure 14-1. Michael J. Adams next to an X-15 experimental aircraft, 22 March 1967. Source: NASA.

A USAF major and test pilot, Adams was selected as an astronaut for the MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) military project, which was intended to provide crewed space stations to be used for monitoring and reconnaissance of the territory of potential enemies.

The MOL project was canceled before any actual launches were made, but Adams still flew into space when he piloted the X-15 experimental hypersonic rocket plane and reached an altitude of 81 kilometers (266,000 feet) on November 15, 1967. This qualified him as an astronaut even according to USAF criteria, which were stricter than NASA’s.

This flight, however, was fatal: a malfunction of the electrical systems of the X-15 and an initial disorientation caused the spacecraft to assume an incorrect attitude, which induced a spin at Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound). The stresses overwhelmed the airframe, which broke up, killing Adams. He was the only fatality of the highly experimental X-15 program, which included Neil Armstrong among its pilots. Many of the records set with the X-15 are still unbeaten.

Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Ilan Ramon

Figure 14-2. A photograph of the Columbia crew in space, recovered from the debris of the spacecraft. Top, from the left: David Brown, William McCool and Michael Anderson. Bottom, from the left: Kalpana Chawla, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.

The seven members of the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia died on February 1, 2003 during reentry. At liftoff, a fragment of the thermal insulation of the Shuttle’s external tank had struck and damaged the thermal protection of the leading edge of the spacecraft’s wing. The red-hot air that formed around the spacecraft during reentry penetrated the wing and partially melted its internal structure, which broke up catastrophically as Columbia was flying at 15 times the speed of sound at an altitude of approximately 55 kilometers (181,000 feet), killing the entire crew instantly.

Charles Arthur Bassett II and Elliot McKay See, Jr.

Figure 14-3. Elliott See (left) and Charles Bassett (right).

Charles Bassett II was a USAF captain, test pilot and member of the third group of astronauts chosen by NASA in October 1963; Elliot See was a US Navy engineer and test pilot and member of the second group of astronauts, selected in September 1962, in addition to being in charge of supervising the design and development of guidance and navigation systems for US spacecraft.

Bassett and See were assigned to the Gemini 8 mission, but on February 28, 1966 they died in the crash of their T-38 training jet as they attempted an instrument landing in low visibility conditions. Bassett was 34 years old; See was 38.

Valentin Bondarenko

Figure 14-4. Valentin Bondarenko (right), with his wife Anya and their child Alexandre in 1956. Source: Anecdotes-spatiales.

Lieutenant Valentin Bondarenko was a fighter pilot in the Soviet air force. On April 28, 1960 he was selected for the first group of 29 cosmonauts and on May 31st of the same year he began training to fly the Vostok 1, the same spacecraft on which Yuri Gagarin would perform the first crewed orbital flight in the history of mankind.

On March 23, 1961, at the end of the third day of a two-week experiment in a pressure chamber at the Institute for Biomedical Studies in Moscow, Bondarenko removed from his body the sensors that monitored his vital functions and cleaned himself with a wad of cotton impregnated with alcohol. He tossed the cotton, which fell onto an electric heater and caught fire, igniting the cosmonaut’s woolen clothing. In the pure oxygen environment of the chamber, the flames raged uncontrollably, with devastating results.

It took half an hour to open the door of the chamber. By then, Bondarenko had suffered third-degree burns on all of his body except for his feet, partly protected by his flight boots. He died in hospital after 16 hours of agony at the age of 24. According to some historical sources, the man assigned to stand by him and report his condition was Yuri Gagarin. Three weeks later, Gagarin flew in space and into the history books, presumably as a replacement for Valentin Bondarenko.

The Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet awarded Bondarenko the Order of the Red Star on June 17, 1961 and the Soviet defense minister issued secret orders that his family be “given all that is necessary, as befits the family of a cosmonaut”.

The horrible death of the young pilot was kept secret until 1980. His face was deleted from the official Soviet photographs of the first six cosmonauts. Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, questioned about the censorship of these photos and the rumors of cosmonauts who had died in secret, lied repeatedly to Western journalists. Bondarenko’s death was revealed in Russia only in 1986, twenty-seven years later, by an article penned by Yaroslav Golovanov on Izvestia. No Soviet vehicle ever used a pure-oxygen atmosphere. A crater on the far side of the Moon bears his name.

Roger B. Chaffee, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Ed H. White

Figure 14-5. Left to right: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

On January 27, 1967, Grissom, White and Chaffee, astronauts of the Apollo space program, were on the launch pad, inside their Apollo 1 spacecraft, for a routine static systems test to prepare for their spaceflight when fire broke out in the cabin. The pure-oxygen environment at atmospheric pressure turned the fire instantaneously into an inferno, which killed the three astronauts in less than thirty seconds. The sudden cabin pressure increase jammed the hatch, which opened inward, blocking any attempt at escape and rescue.

The tragedy had an enormous impact on public opinion in the United States and forced NASA to rethink drastically its procedures and improve the redesign of the Apollo spacecraft that was already in progress, introducing for example a hatch that could be opened easily and outward, removing most of the flammable components and using a mixed nitrogen and oxygen atmosphere for the launch phase. These modifications made the Apollo spacecraft much safer and more reliable than they were initially. In a way, the success of the lunar missions is a direct consequence of the sacrifice of Grissom, White and Chaffee.

Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov

Figure 14-6. Patsayev, Dobrovolsky and Volkov in the Soyuz simulator during training.

These three Soviet cosmonauts had completed successfully the first visit to Salyut 1, the first space station in the history of spaceflight, and were beginning their maneuvers for reentry on June 30, 1971, when the cabin of their Soyuz 11 spacecraft depressurized in a few seconds due to a damaged valve at an altitude of 168 kilometers (551,000 feet).

The valve was out of reach and the cosmonauts were not wearing pressure suits due to the tightness of the cabin and therefore died by suffocation. Dobrovolski was 43; Patsayev was 38; Volkov was 35. Their ashes are in the Kremlin, in Moscow.

Theodore Cordy Freeman

Figure 14-7. Theodore (Ted) Freeman.

A USAF captain, aeronautical engineer and test pilot of experimental aircraft, Freeman was a member of the third group of astronauts selected by NASA in October 1963. He died on October 31, 1964, when the windshield of the T-38 aircraft he was piloting was struck by a goose and windshield fragments were ingested by the engines; Freeman ejected, but his altitude was insufficient and his parachute didn’t have time to open. He was 34 years old. Freeman was the first designated US astronaut to die during the space program.

Edward Galen Givens, Jr.

Figure 14-8. Ed Givens. NASA photo S66-34846, 25 May 1966.

A USAF major and test pilot, Givens was selected in April 1966 for the fifth group of astronauts, composed of 19 men. He completed his astronaut training and was assigned to the backup crew of Apollo 7.

His group was intended to provide the astronaut pilots for the Apollo Applications Program, which at the time was intended as a series of ten Moon landings and thirty flights to space stations in Earth orbit. Almost all the other members of this group went to space on Apollo, Skylab or Shuttle flights, but Ed Givens died in a car accident on June 6, 1967. He was 37 years old.

Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael J. Smith

Figure 14-9. Left to right, front row: Michael J. Smith, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee and Ronald E. McNair. Left to right, back row: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik.

The entire crew of Space Shuttle Challenger died during liftoff on January 28, 1986.

One minute and thirteen seconds after their spacecraft had left the launch pad, one of the gaskets of the lateral solid-propellant boosters broke due to the intense cold that it had experienced overnight on the pad, allowing a tongue of flame to strike the external tank, full of liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The tank ruptured and its fuel ignited catastrophically while the Shuttle was at an altitude of approximately 15 kilometers (48,000 feet) and America was watching helplessly as the tragedy was broadcast live on national television.

The aerodynamic stresses broke up the Shuttle, but the cabin remained almost intact, protecting the astronauts (who had no usable means of escape) until impact occurred in the ocean at over 330 kilometers per hour (200 mph).

The Challenger disaster was the first loss of a US crew during spaceflight.

Vladimir Komarov

Figure 14-10. Vladimir Komarov.

Komarov’s Soyuz 1 spacecraft departed from the Baikonur cosmodrome on April 23, 1967, and showed problems right after the climb to space. One of its solar panels failed to open, leading to a shortage of onboard power and making attitude corrections difficult. After thirteen orbits, the automatic stabilization system had failed completely and the manual one was only partially functional.

The decision was taken to abort the mission, and five orbits later the spacecraft began reentry. The drogue parachute open properly, but the main chute did not, due to a faulty pressure sensor. Komarov opened the spare parachute, which caught in the drogue chute that had not been jettisoned. The spacecraft was slowed only partially and struck the ground at approximately 140 kilometers per hour (90 mph), killing Komarov instantly.

Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.

Figure 14-11. Robert Henry Lawrence. Source: Hill Air Force Base.

A USAF major and test pilot, Robert Lawrence was chosen in June 1967 for the third group of US Air Force astronauts that were intended to fly in space as part of the MOL military space station project. He thus became the first African-American designated astronaut.

He provided important contributions to the space program, as his test flights with modified aircraft were fundamental in developing the steep, unpowered glide paths that would be used by the Space Shuttle.

Lawrence, however, never flew in space. He died on December 8, 1967, in the crash of the F-104 supersonic trainer piloted by his trainee pilot as he was teaching him to perform a so-called “flare”, one of the experimental landing maneuvers used by the spaceplanes of the period, such as the X-15, and developed and mastered by Lawrence. He was 31.

His name is on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center but is not among those left on the Moon on a commemorative plaque placed by the Apollo 15 astronauts in 1971. One of the reasons is that the Pentagon uses the “astronaut” designation only for those who have flown to an altitude of 80 kilometers (50 miles) or more; being merely selected does not qualify. His mission patch was taken to space by the Shuttle Atlantis during the STS-86 flight.

Clifton Curtis Williams, Jr.

Figure 14-12. Official photograph od Clifton C. Williams, S64-31711, 1964 (NASA).

A major of the US Marines and a test pilot, Williams was selected for NASA’s third astronaut group in October 1963 and was assigned to the backup crews of Gemini 10 and Apollo 9.

He died on October 5, 1967, at the age of 35, when a mechanical failure of his T-38 supersonic trainer rendered the controls unusable and the plane entered an uncontrolled roll. Williams ejected, but he was flying too low and too fast for the ejector seat to work.

The Apollo 12 mission commemorated his loss with a patch bearing four stars (one for each of the astronauts who flew, plus one for Williams). Alan Bean, who had been his commander in the backup crew of Gemini 10, placed Williams’ astronaut wings pin on the Moon.