The Perilous Fate of the American Space Pioneers


**This article includes sensitive content including graphic descriptions of deadly accidents. Reader discretion is advised.**


America was shocked when the Soviet space program launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite, into space on October 4th, 1957. Not willing to be outdone for long, President Einsenhower created NASA soon after. The new agency’s first major project was Project Mercury, with the goal of racing the Soviets to put a human being in space.

NASA Astronaut Group 3

Every member of Group 3 had to be U.S. citizens, under age 34, under 6 feet tall, be test pilots or have 1,000 hours of jet piloting experience, and have a degree in engineering or physical science. 720 applications were received, which seems low but this was well before the Internet. 490 applicants were determined to meet the full requirements. A NASA panel of mostly Mercury astronauts chose 139 men from that list and then narrowed it to 34. These top candidates were brought to an Air Force base and given extensive physical and mental tests.

Deke Slayton
Geology Training

Ted Freeman (1964)

In 1964, NASA suffered its first astronaut loss. Captain Theodore Freeman was an aeronautical engineer, Air Force office and test pilot, born in Haverford, Pennsylvania and raised in Delaware. His family of seven were all in blue collar work, but Freeman and his brother saved their pocket change to afford plane rides. He started working on planes and spent the money on flying lessons. By age 16, he earned his pilot’s license. He was an honor student, Boy Scout, and football player. His high school principal later said of him,

“Ted had all the qualities we would like to find in our boys- he was serious minded and dedicated. He read all the books about [aeronautics] he could get his hands on.”

Theodore “Ted” Cordy Freeman

“We don’t look on this as dangerous work. It’s about the most fascinating job I could imagine.”

Tragically, on the morning of Halloween, 1964, Freeman was flying a jet from one training facility to another. He was asked to loop around the runway again when trying to land to relieve air traffic. While doing this, a goose flew into the Plexiglass canopy of the plane during heavy fog. The canopy shattered and shards of glass were sucked into both engines, causing them to fail. Freeman could have attempted to land on the runway, but realized that he might crash into the military housing near the base, where several fellow astronauts lived, instead. He turned away and tried to eject, but he was too close to the ground for his parachute to deploy, and he was killed on impact. Deke Slayton, the former astronaut from the selection committee for Group 3, found his body at the scene.

Freeman’s funeral

“No eulogy is necessary in this service. Ted Freeman’s life speaks for itself.”

He was buried with honors in Arlington Cemetery, remembered as a hero that sacrificed his own life to protect hundreds of innocent people below. Four islands off of Long Beach, called the “Astronaut Islands” were named for him and each of the Apollo 1 astronauts. As a recent newspaper summarized, “His funeral was the last time all NASA astronauts were all together in the same place at the time.”

Charles Bassett and Elliot See (1966)

Bassett and his family
Elliott See during training

“Overwhelmed isn’t the right word. I was amazed and certainly pleased. It’s a very great honor.”

He road tripped with Neil Armstong to the training center in Houston, and he and Armstrong would also be chosen together as the first civilians chosen for spaceflight when they were picked as backup pilots for the Gemini 5 mission. Bassett and See were chosen to be the pilots of a mission called Gemini 9, finally getting their shot at actually going to space

See and Bassett

“Goddammit, where’s he going?”

See tried to land again but hit the roof of the training building. The landing gear and the right wing were torn off and the plane crashed into the parking lot behind the building. A witness said he “heard a roar and saw a ball of fire.” Both men were killed instantly. The scene was chaos. All four of the astronauts’ IDs were with See and Bassett, so it was unclear who had been killed. Both bodies were thrown from the plane and Bassett was decapitated. Ironically and tragically, both of them died within five hundred feet of the spacecraft they were supposed to pilot, which was being built inside the hangar.

The crash site

“Who was in NASA 901?”

Stafford told him it had been See and Bassett. The head of the aircraft company met them on the runway and gave them the news. Stafford was reportedly distraught, but still managed the emergency scene on the ground until other teams arrived.

Bassett during training

“I would not begin to say that his death proves the first thing about his qualifications as an astronaut.”

In the wake of the incident, Buzz Aldrin was pushed forward to fly Gemini 12, which helped him be chosen for Apollo 11, which would have been a major change in space history. The spacecraft was undamaged, so Stafford and Cernan made it to space just a week after the devastating crash. Both See and Bassett’s names are on the Space Mirror Memorial in Florida and the Fallen Astronaut plaque on the moon.

Apollo 1 Crew (L to R: Grissom, White, Chaffee)

Apollo 1 ( Jan 1967)

The crew of Apollo 1 was Gus Grissom, who had been to space twice before, Edward White, who had been once, and Roger Chaffee, who had never gone before. Donn Eisele was actually supposed to be the third pilot but he dislocated his shoulder and needed surgery, so he was replaced by Chaffee.

“I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.”

Roger B. Chaffee was the son of a former stunt pilot who fell in love with aviation after his first flight at age 7. I’m not even going to mention what youth organization he was part of but it rhymes with “Scoy Bouts”. He was a talented engineering student and Navy pilot. He met his wife Martha on a blind date and they had two children. Apollo 1 was supposed to be his first mission to space. He was a communications specialist.

White, Grissom, Chaffee in their official crew portrait with a model of the Apollo 1 ship
The photo for Shea
Apollo 1 crew doing a water-landing emergency training

“You sort of have to put that out of your mind…. So you just plan as best you can to take care of all these eventualities, and you get a well-trained crew and you go fly.”

Unfortunately, January 27th, 1967 was that sooner or later.

The Apollo 1 command module

“How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?”

Chafee, White, and Grissom during a test

“Then you hear the pad people try to rescue the crew. Then it starts to sink in, this is really bad and we didn’t know how bad until we heard on the communications loop: ‘We’ve lost them’.”

Eventually the cabin broke open and the pressure was released, giving the flames even more oxygen. Carbon monoxide, smoke, and soot filled the cabin and the room. It took five minutes to open the hatch, which was made out of three layers.

The Apollo 1 capsule after the fire
The Apollo 1 capsule after the fire

“Apollo 1 was a tragic event and we lost three really good friends, but it may have saved the programme. If we’d had something like that happen on the way to the Moon, it probably would have ended.”

Mission patch for Apollo 1

Clifton Williams (Oct 1967)

The next NASA tragedy came only nine months later, when Apollo program astronaut Clifton C. Williams was killed in October of 1967.

Clifton Williams and his wife Jane Lansche Williams

“I’d like to go on every flight.”

Michael Adams (Nov 1967)

Michael Adams from Sacramento, California was the next NASA fatality, just a month after Williams’s death. He joined the Air Force in 1950 and flew 49 combat missions in the Korean War as a bomber and then 36 more months of service. He earned an aeronautical engineering degree, studied at MIT, and became a top test pilot. He worked on a practice moon landing program and then was chosen to be an astronaut in 1965.

Michael Adams

Robert Lawrence (Dec 1967)

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was the first African-American man chosen to be an astronaut, but unfortunately would never make it to space. He graduated at the top of his high school class in Chicago and then got a degree in chemistry from Bradley University. He joined the Air Force ROTC and then became an Air Force pilot by 21. A classmate described him,

“He was gifted in every area. He was smarter and more efficient than the rest of us. He could dust me off on the basketball court. … And, oh yes, he could fly a jet fighter!”

The next year he married Barbara Cress, and by age 25 he was a pilot instructor and later earned a doctoral degree. He joined NASA and helped collect data in high-flying jets for the development of spacecraft. In 1967, he became the first black astronaut in the corps. A reporter at the announcement asked if Lawrence would have to sit in the back of the back of the spacecraft, which he and the other astronauts laughed at. He told another reporter that he didn’t believe his position was historic. He said,

“It’s another one of those things that we look forward to in civil rights- normal progression.”

On December 8th, 1967, when Lawrence was 31, he was flying as an instructor with a trainee, Major Harvey Royer. Royer made a mistake while trying a steep-descent technique and the plane hit the ground. It caught fire and skidded 2,000 feet. Major Royer, in the front seat, ejected successfully and was severely injured, but survived. The second seat’s ejection is slightly delayed so the two seats don’t crash into each other, but in this case it made Lawrence eject sideways. He was killed instantly.

Robert Lawrence and his teammates

Apollo 11 (1969)

When you think of Apollo 11, you don’t think of failure. It was one of our country’s greatest successes. But when the launch to the moon was planned, President Nixon had a speech on stand-by in case Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins met an untimely fate after their lift-off or worse- were stuck on the untouched moon with no chance of rescue.

Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin in there official crew portrait

“That’s an unpleasant thing to think about. We’ve chosen not to think about that at the present time. We don’t think that’s a likely situation. It’s simply a possible one. At present time, we’re left with no recourse should that occur.”

Michael Collins later said of his mission,

“If they couldn’t get off, they were dead men, and I was getting home by myself.”

After Aldrin and Armstrong went back inside the spacecraft after two and half hours of being the first human beings to walk on the moon, they noticed something chillingly wrong. An inch-long circuit breaker switch was lying on the floor, snapped off from the panel.

“I looked closer and jolted a bit. There on the dust on the floor on the right side of the cabin, lay a circuit breaker switch that had broken off…. Snapped off from the engine-arm circuit breaker, the one vital breaker needed to send electrical power to the ascent engine that would lift Neil and me off the moon.”

That’s one small step for man…

Challenger (1986)

NASA had almost two decades without another fatality. Then came the space accident that traumatized an entire nation. Challenger.

Back L-R: Onizuka, McAuliffe, Jarvis, Resnick Front L-R: Smith, Scobee, McNair
McAuliffe (second from L) training with other astronauts
The Challenger explosion
Onizuka’s soccer ball on display with a model of Challenger

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

NASA redesigned the solid rocket boosters and created a new quality assurance and safety office. Morton-Thiokol lost $10 million. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to stop the next NASA disaster in 2003.

Crowds watching the Challenger explosion

“I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me? You picked a loser.’”

But the Challenger catastrophe can never be placed on one person’s shoulders. It was a group effort, and ultimately a group failure, and a bitter lesson that ultimately made space travel safer and more cautious in the future.

Challenger in flight

Columbia (2003)

The American space program got a 17-year break from astronaut deaths until the Columbia disaster in 2003. The Columbia spacecraft had also flown successfully plenty of times before. But this time was different.

Columbia crew
The Columbia crew

“You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the [thermal protection system]. If it has been damaged it’s probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”

Which… oh my God, is for sure not the attitude you want from your safety team.

Columbia crew

“We have seen this same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry.”

Which they did believe at the time. But turned out to be terribly wrong.

TIME magazine cover with image of the disaster

“My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news, and great sadness to our country. At 9 o’clock this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our Space Shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas. The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors…. The cause in which they died will continue… Our journey into space will go on.”

The debris from the ship and human body parts were scattered across Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, much of which was heavy forests. It took ten days to find all seven bodies. The largest ground search in U.S. history with thousands of volunteers was organized to gather parts of the ship. Ameteaur radio enthusiasts also helped coordinate. Some volunteers had to be disinfected from chemicals and radiation from the ship. Tragically, two search and rescue pilots were killed in a helicopter crash during the search, and three were injured.

Debris gathered from the Columbia wreck

“Don’t worry about it. You have all the time in the world.”

The video was intended to last until touchdown, but ended four minutes before the ship broke up. Ramon’s diary was also partially recovered and returned to his family.

Columbia memorial service

Michael Alsbury

Michael Alsbury


The future of space travel is one that we can only foresee with our imaginations. It’s inevitable that there will be more accidents and more lives lost, just like there were exploring every other frontier, whether it be the arctic, the ocean, or the sky.

Space mirror memorial

“Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds…. To look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.”

I don’t know what our next plateau will be, or what we’re going to see. All I know is, if I know anything about human beings, we’re going to keep climbing.

Fallen astronaut memorial on the surface of the moon




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