Astronauts and Cosmonauts - the Roll of Honour Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Astronauts and Cosmonauts - the Roll of Honour

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This Entry is about astronauts and cosmonauts who made the ultimate sacrifice in the quest to reach outer space and the Moon. There is an aluminium commemorative plaque and 'Fallen Astronaut' sculpture on the Moon, it was placed there by Commander Dave Scott of Apollo 15 in August 1971. They honour the brave souls who paid the ultimate price in attempting to push the boundaries of space exploration. There is also a Space Mirror Memorial (the Astronaut Memorial) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. At the time of writing, 21 people have lost their lives on spaceflight-related duty.

Theodore 'Ted' Freeman

The first NASA astronaut fatality was Captain Theodore Freeman, who died on 31 October, 1964, when his T-38A Talon supersonic jet plane crashed following a goose-strike. After managing to avoid service family accommodation, he ejected but there was not enough time for his parachute to fully deploy and he was killed on impact. He was just 34 years old, and married with one daughter.

  • Captain Freeman's wife Faith found out about her husband's death when a reporter knocked on her door. Following this abomination, NASA put procedures in place to prevent any such repeat.

Valentin Bondarenko

Soviet Air Force pilot Lt Bondarenko was singled out for the cosmonaut programme in 1960. He was one of 20 specially-chosen men to represent their homeland in the Space Race against the USA. At 23, he was the youngest of the trainee cosmonauts. He had a fine singing voice and enjoyed playing tennis in his spare time. Bondarenko suffered third-degree burns following an accident in a pressure chamber that had been part of his endurance training. He died of shock the following day, 23 March, 1961; he was 24 years old. The circumstances surrounding his death were kept secret until 1980 and in 1984 a doctor who had treated Bondarenko described his patient's terrible suffering. Bondarenko was posthumously awarded the Order of the Red Star and there is a crater on the far side of the Moon named in his honour.

Gemini 9

Commander Elliot See Jr and Captain Charles Bassett were supposed to be the Gemini 9 crew but they were killed in a jet crash on their way for simulator training on 28 February, 1966. Their space mission went ahead with the back-up crew, but it was renamed Gemini 9A due to the failure of a target rocket and having to change the mission's objective.

Apollo 1 Astronauts

The Apollo 1 crew Roger Chaffee, Virgil (Gus) Grissom and Edward White were killed on 27 January, 1967, when a spark ignited a fire in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of their cabin during the launch rehearsal. The astronauts were sealed inside but when they became aware of the fire and reported it, they couldn't break the seal of the hatch door - the pressure inside was too great. By the time the ground crew got to the three men it was too late, they were already dead. Gus Grissom had known that the mission was not ready - he had plucked a lemon off a tree in his garden just five days prior and told his wife that he was going to 'hang it on that spacecraft' before giving her one last kiss. (It ended up on the flight simulator at Cape Canaveral.)

  • After the Apollo 1 disaster NASA redesigned all the capsules, so they could be opened almost instantly in an emergency. Edward White's father, who lived in St Petersburg, Florida, built a hospital and named it in his son's honour.

Vladimir Komarov

Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died on 24 April, 1967. Komarov was the first spacefarer to be killed while on a mission. The parachute of his spacecraft Soyuz 1 failed to deploy following re-entry, causing it to crash into the Earth at tremendous speed. He was 40 years old; he was a husband and father. Komarov was awarded the Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union twice, in 1964 and 1967 (posthumously), the Order of Lenin (1964) and the Order of the Red Star (1961), among other commendations. There is an asteroid, 1836 Komarov, named in his honour, as well as a crater on the Moon. First human in space Yuri Gagarin was the back-up pilot for the Soyuz 1 mission - he and Komarov were good friends. Gagarin had wanted the mission postponed because technicians had found 203 structural problems, but no-one dared ask the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, for a postponement. Komarov knew he was doomed but he refused to extricate himself from the mission because if he did, his friend Gagarin would be his replacement - and Komarov wouldn't allow that to happen. American astronauts, who had requested to attend Komarov's funeral, were refused permission by the Soviet government.

  • Just 11 months after Komarov's death, Yuri Gagarin was killed when the training jet he was piloting crashed.

Edward 'Ed' Givens Jr

Ed Givens held a BSc degree in Naval Sciences and was awarded the Outstanding Graduate certificate from the US Naval Academy in 1952. He was also a Life Scout, the second-highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America. Major Givens was one of the 19 astronauts selected by NASA in April 1966. He completed his basic astronaut training then was assigned to the Apollo programme, where he worked as support crew for Apollo 7. Major Givens may possibly have been a future command module pilot, but he died on 6 June, 1967, when the car he was driving crashed into a ditch. He was married to Ada; they were the parents of three children aged four years, three years and 2½ months at the time of their father's death.

Clifton C Williams Jr

Major Williams was the first bachelor astronaut, although he did have a girlfriend and they married in 1964. He was the back-up pilot for the manned-flight Gemini 10 in July 1966. Selected as Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 12, he would have walked on the Moon with Commander Pete Conrad if he hadn't been killed in a T-38 jet plane crash on 5 October, 1967. Tragically, he was on his way to visit his terminally-ill father when the accident happened. Captain Alan Bean took his place aboard Apollo 12. When the mission patch was being designed, Bean suggested an extra star in honour of Clifton Williams, and his naval aviator wings were left on the Moon.

  • Clifton's wife Beth gave birth to their second daughter Jane seven months after his death.

Michael James 'Mike' Adams

Mike Adams was such a great pilot that he won the AB Honts Trophy as the best pilot in his class. He was selected to be an astronaut in November 1965 but transferred to the X-15 (a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft) research programme. The X-15 was an aircraft that was able to travel above the major part of the atmosphere. Major Adams was on his seventh X-15 flight on 15 November, 1967, when the aircraft broke up after spinning at more than five times the speed of sound during re-entry. He was posthumously awarded astronaut wings.

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr

Major Robert Henry 'Bob' Lawrence Jr was the first African-American to qualify as an astronaut, in June 1967. Tragically he never made it into space. His job was test pilot and flight instructor for trainees and, during one training flight at Edwards Air Force Base in California on 8 December, 1967, the trainee pilot crashed their F-104 Starfighter. Major Lawrence was killed when his ejector seat malfunctioned. He was 32 years old, and married with one child.

  • Major Lawrence had a BSc in chemistry and a doctorate degree in nuclear chemistry - if he had lived he would almost certainly have been chosen to be a member of the crew of a Space Shuttle.

Yuri Gagarin

Colonel Gagarin was an ice hockey player and a basketball fan, coach and referee. He had a mega-watt smile and a charming personality. His claim to fame, though, is that he was the first human in space, and the first person to orbit the Earth in his spacecraft Vostok 1 on 12 April, 1961. He was 27 years old at the time, and his instant fame led to him touring the planet only his eyes had seen from orbit. World leaders lined up to shake his hand and millions of autograph-hunters clamoured for his signature. Among the accolades which were bestowed upon him were the Order of Lenin, Hero of the Soviet Union, Gold Medal of the British Interplanetary Society, Medal of Columbus, Order of the Nile, Order of the African Star and the Order of the Flag of the Hungarian Republic first class with diamonds. He was awarded the golden keys to the gates of Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt, and created an honorary citizen of Athens in Greece, among many others. Gagarin died in a MiG-15UTI training flight crash on 27 March, 1968. He was just 34 years old yet in his short lifetime he had catapulted humankind into a new realm. His untimely death was a bitter blow to the Soviet Union - ironically, Gagarin had been banned from spaceflights following the tragic Soyuz 1 mission - but the rest of the world also mourned the loss of the diminutive1 hero who had braved the unknown. His remarkable achievement had transcended politics and geographical divisions, in effect he was the world's first Earthman representing the entire planet on our behalf.

  • 'Yuri's Night' is an international celebration held every 12 April, to commemorate milestones in space exploration. It is also recognised as the International Day of Human Space Flight. Since Gagarin's history-making flight, over 500 men and women have ventured into space, but he will always be remembered as the first.

Suyuz 11 Cosmonauts

The Suyuz 11 crew Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov were asphyxiated on 30 June, 1971, due to a faulty ventilation valve. They are the only human beings to have died in space. In 1973 the Soviet government erected a 50' tall, three-sided black metallic monument in Kazakhstan, at the remote and lonely place where the Suyuz 11, with its deceased crew, had landed. Unfortunately, that monument was vandalised and completely destroyed by persons unknown in 2012. The Russian state space corporation Roscosmos replaced it with a smaller marble monument in 2013.

  • There is a feature on Pluto called Soyuz Colles, named in honour of the Suyuz 11 crew.

Space Shuttle Challenger

I have lived on the west coast of Florida since 1963. While over a hundred miles from the space-port at Cape Canaveral (The Kennedy Space Center) the flames and smoke of the launches can be clearly seen on the horizon here after a few minutes of flight. We could also hear the distinctive double boom of the sonic wave as the shuttles returned after their flights. By the time of the Challenger flight I had watched dozens of launches on the horizon and they had become mundane. I was at work and decided to ignore the launch and just stay at my desk. Shortly after I heard the rumors that something had gone terribly wrong. I walked outside and the twisted smoke trails were still quite visible. I never took another space flight as routine after that.
- An h2g2 Researcher

The seven crew members aboard the Challenger were killed during take-off at Cape Canaveral on 28 January, 1986. The extremely cold weather had contributed towards the disaster.

  • Commander Francis R 'Dick' Scobee had previously logged seven days in space. He was married with two children. The Planetarium at San Antonio College is named after him.
  • Gregory B Jarvis was a civilian astronaut and had a BSc in Electrical Engineering. He was married and liked to play classical guitar.
  • Christa McAuliffe won her place aboard the shuttle over 11,000 other applicants to the 'Teacher in Space' programme. She was 37 years old and married with two children. There is a crater on Venus, a lunar crater and an asteroid, 3352 McAuliffe, named in her honour.
  • Dr Ronald E McNair was another space veteran, having spent 191 hours in space. He was married with two children, had a black belt in Karate and enjoyed playing the saxophone. There is a park in Brooklyn, New York City, and a crater on the Moon named after him.
  • Lt Col Ellison S Onizuka was the first Japanese-American astronaut - he had spent three days in space in 1985. He was married with two daughters. The international airport at his hometown of Kalaoa, Hawaii, was renamed in his honour. There is also a crater on the Moon and an asteroid, 3355 Onizuka, named after him.
  • Dr Judith A Resnik qualified as an astronaut at the age of 30. She was the second American woman to journey into space, after pioneer Sally Ride (1951-2012), and had previously logged 145 hours in space. Judith had a BSc in Electrical Engineering and was a classical pianist. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) created the annual Judith A Resnik Award in her honour, the winner received a bronze medal, certificate and prize money2.
  • Commander Michael J Smith was Challenger's pilot on his first space mission. He had an MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and a BSc in Naval Science. Married with three children, Michael was an accomplished woodworker and enjoyed playing tennis and squash. Following the disaster, the people of Beaufort, his hometown, wished to honour him and the Beaufort-Morehead City Airport in North Carolina was renamed The Michael J Smith Field.

The Challenger disaster killed off NASA's plan to send civilians into space. It would be two years eight months before another shuttle, the Discovery, would fly. President George W Bush awarded posthumous Congressional Space Medals of Honor to the crewmembers of the Challenger in 2004.

They Were Flying For Me

Singer/songwriter John Denver was a qualified pilot and also interested in the space programme. His enthusiasm for space travel was so great that he took and passed NASA's physical examination to determine mental and physical fitness required for space travel. John became one of the leading candidates to be the 'first civilian in space', and he was planning to write a song while in orbit, but it was decided to send a teacher instead. Following the disaster, he wrote and recorded 'Flying For Me' in memory of the Challenger crew. John died when an experimental light aircraft he was piloting ran out of fuel and crashed into Monterey Bay, California, on 12 October, 1997.

Barbara Morgan

Christa McAuliffe's back-up from the 'Teacher in Space' programme selection was Barbara Morgan. The loss of the Challenger and horrific deaths of its crew didn't deter Barbara, it spurred her on. She resigned her teaching post and enrolled to become an astronaut, qualifying in 1998. Chosen as a crewmember of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, Barbara was a robotic arm operator, helping to build the International Space Station (ISS).

Manley 'Sonny' Carter Jr

At over 6'-tall in his socks, 'Sonny' Carter was a formidable opponent in the wrestling ring. He also enjoyed playing soccer, baseball, tennis and golf. He was an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America. In his spare time he liked to watch old movies. Captain Carter was a flight surgeon and a veteran of the TOPGUN (United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program) school. He developed training techniques at NASA's underwater astronaut training facility, and became an astronaut himself in June 1985. He spent five days in space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in November 1989, and he was to be a member of the shuttle crew for a January 1992 launch, but he died aged 43 on 5 April, 1991, in a commercial airplane crash. He had been on NASA duty at the time. Carter was married with two daughters.

  • Following his death, NASA's underwater astronaut training facility was renamed the Sonny Carter Training Facility Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.

Space Shuttle Columbia

The Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster in 2003 killed the crew on re-entry. They were: mission commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chalwa, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and the first Israeli in space, Colonel Ilan Ramon3. There is a more detailed h2g2 entry about the crew. President George W Bush said: 'This day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country... Columbia is lost; there are no survivors. The cause in which they died will continue, our journey into space will go on.' The crewmembers of the Columbia were awarded posthumous Congressional Space Medals of Honor in 2004. There is a range of hills on Pluto called Columbia Colles, named in honour of the crew.

Shuttles Retired

It would be two and a half years before the Discovery restarted the space shuttle programme. Along with the remaining shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour, they ferried the crews who built the ISS. Contingency missions were in place should any of the shuttles become incapacitated in space and the crew requiring rescue, thankfully none were needed. Atlantis flew the last shuttle mission in 2011 and the three surviving shuttles ended up in museums. Since their retirement, Soyuz (Russian spacecraft) ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. They can carry cargo and up to three people at a time. There are treaties in place to ensure the peaceful use of space, so the ISS would remain neutral territory in the event of any political conflict or war back on the Earth. Relevant space agencies would most likely try to keep the ISS staffed and working for the good of all humankind. With no political interference the NASA/Roscosmos partnership would survive and hopefully be an example of the benefits of co-operation between people of differing nationalities.

Next Stop Mars

It is part of the human psyche to explore, make progress and carry on exploring. Anyone who signs up for a job in space knows the risks they take, and thankfully most return to Earth in one piece. Those who didn't survive are rightfully honoured and remembered. As we as a species prepare for a pioneering manned trip to the planet Mars, we can only hope and pray that there will be no more space-related casualties. Our grateful thanks go to those on the ground who have worked hard to make space flight as safe as possible.

Image Courtesy of NASA

1Gagarin was only 5'2" tall.2The award was discontinued after the 2012 presentation.3Ilan Ramon's son Assaf, who was 14 when his father was killed, trained to be a pilot. President Shimon Peres presented Lt Ramon with his pilot's wings at his graduation. Tragically Lt Ramon was killed when his F-16 fighter jet crashed while on a routine training mission in September 2009. He was just 21 years old. The Eilat Ilan and Assaf Ramon International Airport, a civilian airport in southern Israel, will open in April 2018.

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