NASA Pauses to Reflect on Past

The U.S. space agency has its hands full at present but still has made room for a few moments to remember its past.

Yesterday, NASA's Messenger space probe returned the clearest images of Mercury ever seen from 2 billion miles away. Meanwhile, in Earth orbit, the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) successfully completed a seven-hour spacewalk to repair a crucial external motor that orients the station's starboard solar array. And while this was going on, managers of the space shuttle program finalized the launch of their next mission, STS-122, for one week from now.

Still, today is special to the men and women of the American space program. Fifty years ago on this date, prior to the formation of NASA, the United States launched Explorer I, the nation's first spacecraft.

Moreover, NASA sets aside this date annually as a Day of Remembrance to honor those who have fallen in pursuit of the exploration of space, with special recognition of three tragic accidents that claimed the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia.

In a prepared statement, NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin addressed the entire agency: "The last week of January brings, every year, a confluence of sobering anniversaries that we honor this Thursday with our Day of Remembrance. On Jan. 27, we marked 41 years since the loss of the crew of Apollo 1, and with it NASA's loss of innocence. The Apollo fire made it clear that we bring to spaceflight the same human flaws as our forebears who first sailed the ocean or went aloft in stick-and-wire contraptions. Successive generations have known the same harsh truth; the crew of Challenger was lost to us on Jan. 28, 22 years ago, and on Feb. 1 we mark five years since the loss of Columbia."

Griffin added notably:

But as tempting as it is for us who are engineers and managers to take comfort in finding and fixing the root causes of these accidents and other near misses, I think we do ourselves a disservice thereby. For when we investigate, we always find that there were people who did see the flaw, who had concerns which, had they been heard and heeded, could have averted tragedy. But in each case the necessary communication -- hearing and heeding -- failed to take place. It is this failure of communication, and maybe the failure of trust that open communication requires, that are the true root causes we seek. These are the real reasons we have a Day of Remembrance, and need one.

In looking back, to triumphs and tragedies, perhaps those who seek to fly to the stars will gain the insights needed to go forward with more humility and wisdom, as there is so far to go. Seneca the Younger wrote: per Asperam ad astra (through difficulties to the stars). It is a fitting thought on this occasion.

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