Tragedy Is Worst In 25 Years of Manned Missions

By Stuart Auerbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 29, 1986

The in-flight explosion of the space shuttle Challenger yesterday was the worst disaster in the 25 years that the United States has rocketed humans into space. It came 19 years and one day after the only other fatal accident in the U.S. space program, a fire that killed three astronauts during a launch pad rehearsal.

Never before in 56 U.S. manned missions had an astronaut been killed or injured during a space flight.

In a launch pad tragedy on Jan. 27, 1967, astronauts Virgil (Gus) Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Edward White were killed when fire rapidly engulfed their Apollo 1 spacecraft as they rehearsed for a flight that was to be one of the preliminary steps to man's first landing on the moon 2 1/2 years later.

In addition to the 10 U.S. space-related deaths, four Soviet cosmonauts are known to have been killed in two separate accidents.

One, the first death of a man in space, killed Vladimir Komarov in 1967 when his Soyuz 1 capsule parachute failed to open on landing and the spacecraft crashed in Russia's Ural Mountains. Four years later, three cosmonauts died when a hatch seal failed and the Soyuz 11 spacecraft experienced a rapid decompression that killed Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev. They were found dead after the spacecraft made an automatic landing.

Death in space was on the minds of America's space planners from the day the United States decided to put a man in space.

James McDivitt, one of the second group of U.S. astronauts and a veteran of a 97-hour 1965 flight in which Edward White made America's first spacewalk, faced the question in an interview in the early days of space exploration.

"Eventually," McDivitt said, "we will have a flight that will not be successful. The astronauts know it, and I hope the United States realizes it. It will happen just as you have accidents with regular-type aircraft."

"We were afraid of losing people," Julian Scheer said in an interview yesterday. Scheer headed public affairs for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the height of America's manned space program, when the United States was racing the Soviets to the moon.

"We place a great value on human life. So we just scrubbed a lot of launches. When in doubt, we didn't fly," he said.

As in yesterday's explosion, none of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in 1967 had a chance of escaping the oxygen-fed fire that roared through their spacecraft. Grissom, White and Chaffee were strapped inside the command module, which was perched atop a giant Saturn rocket on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, and workers trying to break open the hatches were driven back by dense smoke. The astronauts suffocated.

NASA hit its lowest point with that fire. Despite an avowed concern for safety, the space agency's unusually frank and harshly worded investigation laid the blame for the deaths on the agency's faulty spacecraft design and construction, and lack of attention to crew safety. Sloppy wiring caused the fire, a poor choice of materials fed it and a lack of attention to safety made it impossible to get the astronauts out, the report concluded.

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company