"If we die, we want people to accept it.  We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program.  The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."

Virgil I. Grissom
Command Pilot
Apollo 1

Challenger Columbia Apollo 1

Every year, the six-day period from January 27th to February 1st marks a time of remembrance for the NASA community and for all America, for within this brief mid-winter span our nation honors the memory of the fallen astronauts of Apollo 1 and of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia.  Each of these disasters claimed the lives of all on board and in their aftermath caused many Americans in their shock and grief to question the necessity of manned space flight.  In each case, after much soul-searching and debate, our nation has concluded, as did the late Gus Grissom, that, regardless of the danger, "the conquest of space is worth the risk of life."

For the past several years I have sought to memorialize these honored dead through a series of Web sites that tell their stories in terms both mythical and musical.  From the pages of my 1999 "Icarus Rising" Challenger memorial site and continuing through my 2003 "Phaeton Descending" Columbia site to my most recent "Apollo Burning" memorial to the astronauts of Apollo 1, the lives of these seventeen brave men and women shine like stars in the night sky, helping to light the way for the rest of us, the remainder of mankind, who can as yet only dream of following in their footsteps.  It is my hope that in perusing the links to these sites you will find in the light of their sacrifice something of the sense of awe and humility that I have felt in contemplating the mission that they so selflessly embraced both in life and in death.

Challenger STS-51L
January 28th, 1986

"Icarus Rising" interprets the Challenger disaster in terms of the Greek myth of Icarus.  Although it first debuted on the Web in 1999, this site may truly be said to have been thirteen years in the making.  On the very day of the disaster, as I spoke about it with friends and watched the news coverage all afternoon long and into the evening, I found myself "hearing" music in the back of my mind, but I didn't pay any attention to it.  Only once I turned off the TV well after midnight did I realize that the song in my head was Kansas' "Icarus - Borne on Wings of Steel."  For years afterward that song and the memory of the Challenger haunted my dreams and waking days as I sought a means of expressing for myself and to others the complex thoughts and emotions that the song and the memory of those seven lives lost evoked in my heart and mind.  By the late 1990s and into the new millennium the World Wide Web had become the perfect medium to express the ideas, images and music that symbolize for me the heart of the story of the Challenger and to share them with others the world over.  "Icarus Rising" is the fruition of that effort.

Like Icarus, the crew of the Challenger knew that their flight was more than merely utilitarian in nature.  The presence of a civilian, a teacher, on board underscored that theirs was a universal mission of discovery, of learning, of furthering human knowledge beyond the limitations of the world around us.  Fittingly, the Challenger crew was the most culturally diverse of any shuttle crew that had yet flown: male, female, black, white, Japanese American, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant. Together they symbolized the best of who we are and all that we can become, as one laying aside their individual differences to strive for a goal larger than themselves, and in so doing they, like Icarus, slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.  After their loss, no other shuttle mission or crew would again seem so innocent, so perfect, until...

Columbia STS-107
February 1st, 2003

Four days after the 17th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, I awoke to the news that NASA had lost contact with Columbia during her reentry and that debris was raining down over Texas and Louisiana.  Like the crew of Challenger, Columbia's crew had been spectacularly diverse, representing many faiths and walks of life from across the globe, and their loss was felt worldwide.  As I struggled to absorb the shock of this tragedy so soon after the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks, the feelings of sorrow, disbelief and emptiness coursing through my heart and mind led me to relive the day of Challenger's demise.  I was not alone.  Over the next several days Internet traffic to my "Icarus Rising" site skyrocketed as people the world over sought to deal with the loss of Columbia by remembering Challenger, and I responded to this flood of grief and remembrance by placing a note of condolence on my Challenger page.  In my heart, however, I knew that this was not enough; the crew of Columbia deserved a memorial as fitting and as complete as what I had done for Challenger's crew.  But what?

In the days following the fall of Columbia, I found myself thinking of the shuttle program as the "child" of the Apollo moon program.  As I perused my mythological sources, I was attracted to the story of Phaeton, the human child of the sun-god Apollo, who sets off from his home on a fantastic journey of discovery to find his father and to claim what is his by right of birth: the reins of the chariot of the sun.  Like young Phaeton, the crew of Columbia were not content to live ordinary lives of comfort and safety; these "children of Apollo" instead left behind everything they knew and loved and embraced a hope beyond this earth.  Seizing upon this idea and combining it with the Kerry Livgren song "The Traveler," over the next couple of weeks I began developing "Phaeton Descending" to honor the memory of the seven brave souls of the Columbia, whose true home awaited them not on Earth but in the shining realm of Apollo.

And speaking of Apollo...

Apollo 1
January 27th, 1967

Unlike the Challenger and Columbia disasters, I have no personal memory of the fire that killed the three-man crew of AS-204 (later rechristened Apollo 1 in their honor) inside their command module during a preflight test; I was only four years old when it happened.  For a long time I used my having been too young to remember the disaster as an excuse for not putting together a memorial to those astronauts; besides, I was too busy designing and refining my Challenger site to shift gears and concentrate on a tragedy that I didn't even remember.  However, after Columbia fell I realized that part of our need to remember Challenger was to make sense of Columbia's loss in terms of the earlier one; indeed, my own purpose in memorializing Challenger has always been for the sake of preserving her memory not only for those who do remember but also for the sake of those who are too young to remember... just as I had been too young to remember the astronauts of Apollo 1.  Once I understood this, I knew that I could not in good conscience continue to ignore their story.

In contrast to the mythology-based formats of my Challenger and Columbia memorial sites, "Apollo Burning" is laid out in a storyboard style featuring images that represent both humanity's yearning to make sense of our place in the universe and the legacy of the Apollo moon program, a legacy that might never have come about if the loss of Apollo 1 had been allowed to quench the burning flame of exploration and enterprise that had driven the program from the beginning; indeed, there would be no Challenger or Columbia to honor today if that spirit had been extinguished with the crew of Apollo 1.  The images contained in this site are combined with and interpreted through the lyrics and music of Kerry Livgren's "One Dark World" to produce a psalm of wonder, lament and praise that concludes as a prayer that we will not remain lost and alone in the darkness, that we will one day indeed find our true home.

Why do this?  Why expend the time and effort to create such memorials?  Indeed, what drives anyone to remember and honor those heroes who have gone before, who valued the goal to which they strove more than life itself?  I can speak only for myself, though even now I must do so as though seeing through a mirror dimly.  Perhaps it is a way of understanding, accepting and expressing my sense of my own mortality; perhaps it is an affirmation of my faith and hope within a world of darkness, sorrow and loss; perhaps it is an expression of the personal hope that were I to be in a similar circumstance of risk to life and limb I would respond with the same courage and selflessness which I ascribe to them.  Perhaps it is all of these.  Or perhaps it is because, when I remember these seventeen souls, the risk that they willingly accepted and the price that they willingly paid, I imagine them shining as stars in the heaven that they sought to embrace, smiling back upon the Earth that they left behind and whispering in a still, small voice:

"Do this in remembrance of us."

"Red and Rover" by Brian Bassett
March 16th, 2003

Background music:
"Alpha" by Vangelis

NASA Ribbon image by Clay Bennett of The Christian Science Monitor.

"Space Trilogy" site concept and design by
Michael E. Brooks, M.Div., Th.M.

Online since December 22nd, 2003

(Disclaimer: This site has no official connection with or endorsement by NASA.)