What (And When) is NASA’s Day of Remembrance?

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The hard work of NASA astronauts, flight crew members, and virtually all other NASA employees has helped humankind achieve remarkable advances in a relatively short span of time. That said, the nature of space travel is inherently dangerous. Sadly, not every NASA astronaut has survived their missions. 

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It’s important we remember their contributions and honor their sacrifices. That’s the idea behind NASA’s Day of Remembrance. Like Memorial Day, NASA’s Day of Remembrance allows us to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in service of the final frontier. To learn more about this particular day of reflection, keep reading. 

What is NASA’s Day of Remembrance? 

Due to the dangerous nature of spaceflight, it’s no surprise that some NASA astronauts have died while on their missions or preparing for them. NASA’s Day of Remembrance is important to all NASA employees, as it allows them to reflect on their fallen colleagues’ sacrifices.

However, it also allows the entire nation (and anyone else with an interest in NASA, regardless of nationality) to honor those who died in pursuit of some of humankind’s most ambitious goals.

Origin

NASA appears to be fairly tight-lipped about when NASA’s Day of Remembrance first began. This may be at least partially because what’s now an official day of reflection seems to have begun as something more informal.

NASA’s Day of Remembrance occurs during a time of year that many NASA employees might find painful. Quite simply, the anniversary dates of three of NASA’s greatest disasters are all fairly close together.

As a result, NASA employees and astronauts began coping with this challenging time of year by reflecting on their lost colleagues and memorializing them. This seems to have started after the Columbia accident, the third major disaster in NASA history. Over the years it eventually developed into the official NASA’s Day of Remembrance, which virtually all NASA employees observe in some capacity every year.

Astronauts and crews honored

It’s important to understand that NASA’s Day of Remembrance serves as a day when we can reflect on all the lives lost in the space program. This includes everyone from well-known names who perished in highly-publicized disasters to lesser-known test pilots who died helping NASA achieve its goals.

That said, NASA officials tend to highlight three crews in particular on NASA’s Day of Remembrance.

Apollo 1 Crew: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee

One of NASA’s greatest tragedies occurred on January 27, 1967. The Apollo 1 crew was testing one of their spacecraft in preparation for a possible trip to the moon. Unfortunately, they lost their lives when a fire broke out in the cramped environment. 

An investigation into the incident concluded that the fire most likely started as a stray spark from damaged wires. Unfortunately, the spacecraft’s interior easily allowed a small spark to turn into something much bigger. The inside was pure oxygen, and various features, such as nylon netting, were flammable.

Technicians struggled to fight the fire and free the trapped astronauts, who were unable to open their hatch door due to an excessive buildup of pressure. NASA made adjustments to the door’s design to prevent future accidents like this one.

Challenger Crew: Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe

Many consider the Challenger disaster to be a “flashbulb memory” for those old enough to remember it. A flashbulb memory is a memory packed with so much emotional resonance that it stands out in greater detail than most other memories from the same period in your life.

The fact that this incident qualifies as a flashbulb memory for so many people is at least partially due to the fact that the Challenger disaster occurred in front of millions of viewers on live television. On January 28, 1986, the crew was onboard the space shuttle and prepared to start their mission. The launch was of particular interest to the public because one of the crew members, Christa McAuliffe, was set to be the first teacher in space. NASA even planned to have McAuliffe deliver lessons from the space shuttle after it left Earth.

Sadly, that would never happen. Just 73 seconds after it launched into the sky, the Challenger broke up before the eyes of onlookers. Because fragments of the shuttle landed in the Atlantic Ocean, it took salvage crews weeks to collect the pieces necessary for an investigation.

Investigators found that the seal on the rocket boosters that were meant to bring the shuttle into orbit had degraded due to cold weather. Although the Challenger crew lost their lives, it’s worth noting that their deaths resulted in some positive developments. NASA made various changes to its policies to ensure greater safety in the future. While this doesn’t bring the Challenger crew back, it at least assures they didn’t die in vain.

Columbia Crew: Rick Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon

The next major disaster in NASA history occurred on February 1, 2003. After spending 16 days in space, the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia began their landing approach to Kennedy Space Center.

However, prior to this, some NASA officials and employees already had concerns about the shuttle’s condition. After reviewing footage of Columbia’s launch, they noticed that a piece of foam from the “bipod ramp” appeared to have struck the shuttle’s left wing. Some tried to get photos of the wing while the shuttle was in space, but they were unable to.

The landing approach began normally. However, at one point, NASA ground crew members suddenly lost temperature readings from the left wing. Tire pressure readings from the shuttle’s left side vanished shortly after.

The ground crew communicator contacted the shuttle’s commander, Rick Husband, to discuss the loss of tire pressure readings. Husband replied “Roger” and apparently continued to speak, but communications cut out before anyone could decipher what the next word was.

The ground crew struggled to contact the shuttle’s crew for 12 minutes. By that point, Columbia should have been approaching the runway. However, everyone realized something had likely gone very wrong when a caller contacted one of the mission controllers letting them know a video of the shuttle breaking up in the sky had appeared on a television network.

An investigation into the disaster later revealed that a hole formed in the left wing, likely when foam struck it. This allowed atmospheric gases to enter the shuttle during reentry. These gases destroyed the shuttle after taking out the sensors on the left side.

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When is NASA’s Day of Remembrance? 

There is no set date for NASA’s Day of Remembrance. In 2020, NASA’s Day of Remembrance took place on January 30. It was meant to occur on January 31 in 2019, but due to the partial government shutdown, NASA postponed it to February 7. Some years it’s taken place on February 1.

You may be noticing a theme here. Although there isn’t one specific date NASA’s Day of Remembrance always falls on, it always takes place in late January or early February (barring circumstances like those described above).

This isn’t a random choice. NASA’s three main accidents all took place between January 27 and February 1. That’s why we observe NASA’s Day of Remembrance this time of year.

How Do You Remember the Dead on NASA’s Day of Remembrance?

There are both official and unofficial ways you may remember the dead on NASA’s Day of Remembrance. The following examples will help you determine how you might want to observe this day.

Visiting graves

Although you may be interested in more creative ways to honor someone who passed away, many people simply observe NASA’s Day of Remembrance by visiting the graves of fallen astronauts.

Arlington Cemetery in particular is home to numerous graves of NASA astronauts and officials. It’s also home to memorials for both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Visiting them is a simple but natural way to pay your respects. Just keep in mind that NASA officials also participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery every year on this day, so you may not have immediate access when you visit.

Education

Every year, NASA’s Administrator publishes a message regarding NASA’s Day of Remembrance. You can often find these messages as individual pages on NASA’s official website. Additionally, these pages tend to include videos (and sometimes other educational materials) about such incidents as the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia disasters.

Thus, if you can’t observe NASA’s Day of Remembrance by participating in an official ceremony, you can still take this opportunity to learn more about those who lost their lives helping us further our exploration of space. One of the best ways to respect the dead is to learn about their lives and the values for which they stood.

NASA’s Day of Remembrance: Celebrating Heroes

The loss of any admirable person is sad. However, this guide has hopefully helped you appreciate that NASA’s Day of Remembrance isn’t just a day when we can dwell on those sad feelings. It’s actually a day to celebrate those who made tremendous sacrifices in their attempts to improve the future of humankind.


Sources

  1. “Christa McAuliffe.” Biography, A&E Television Networks, LLC, 23 July 2019, www.biography.com/astronaut/christa-mcauliffe
  2. “Day of Remembrance (2019)”, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, www.nasa.gov/specials/dor2019/
  3. “Day of Remembrance (2020)”, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, www.nasa.gov/specials/dor2020/#:~:text=%E2%80%93%20Day%20of%20Remembrance%20%E2%80%93,30.
  4. Howell, Elizabeth. “Apollo 1: The Fatal Fire.” Space, Future US, Inc., 16 November 2017, www.space.com/17338-apollo-1.html
  5. Howell, Elizabeth. “Challenger: The Shuttle Disaster That Changed NASA.” Space, Future US, Inc., 01 May 2019, www.space.com/18084-space-shuttle-challenger.html
  6. Howell, Elizabeth. “Columbia Disaster: What Happened, What NASA Learned.” Space, Future US, Inc., 01 February 2019, www.space.com/19436-columbia-disaster.html
  7. “NASA Memorials and Burials at Arlington Cemetery.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-memorials-and-burials-at-arlington-national-cemetery/
  8. Wall, Mike. “Postponed by Shutdown, NASA's Day of Remembrance Happens Next Week.” Space, Future US, Inc., 30 January 2019, www.space.com/43174-nasa-day-remembrance-feb7-2019.html
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