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Fallen Challenger, Apollo astronauts remembered

The Challenger, seconds before exploding January 28, 1986
The Challenger, seconds before exploding January 28, 1986  

By Richard Stenger
CNN Sci-Tech

(CNN) -- A Florida town near the space center where manned NASA rockets roar into space observed a mournful moment of silence on Monday, 16 years after seven astronauts embarked on the fatal flight of the space shuttle Challenger.

On Sunday, relatives and veterans of the Apollo 1 mission gathered nearby at the launch pad where three astronauts died 35 years ago during a countdown test.

Hundreds attended a memorial service Monday at the Astronaut Memorial Plaza in Titusville, a small coastal town near the Kennedy Space Center and adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The moment of silence took place at 11:38 a.m. ET, the same date and time when the Challenger exploded over the Atlantic Ocean less than two minutes after it lifted off from the coastal Florida launch site.

Sparked by a faulty ring seal on a tank carrying explosive shuttle fuel, the 1986 disaster killed astronauts Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judy Resnik, Elison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis and Christa McAullife, who had won a U.S. competition to become the first teacher in space.

Former astronaut Sam Durrance, now the executive director of the Florida Space Research Institute, delivered the keynote speech.

Gus Grissom, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, was the second American in space.
Gus Grissom, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, was the second American in space.  

Besides honoring the Challenger crew, the service commemorated astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White, who died on January 27, 1967, when a blaze engulfed the Apollo 1 capsule, one week before they were to launch into orbit.

Technicians tried in vain to rescue the men. Pure oxygen in the capsule turned a spark from an unknown source into an instant inferno. The highly pressurized gas also prevented anyone inside or outside the hatch from opening the door, which could only open inward.

In the wake of the accident, NASA revamped the Apollo program with new design features that some credit with ensuring that men landed safely on the moon before the end of the decade.

Before the accident, Grissom had said: "If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business and we hope if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."

On Sunday, mission engineers and relatives, including Betty Grissom, the widow of the Apollo I commander, gathered for a private service where the fire took place.


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