I have decided to do a special edition of the Women of history today. This week is a big week in US Space exploration history, although a tragic one as well. On January 27, 1967, The Apollo 1 disaster happened. It killed three astronauts after the pure oxygen in the cockpit caught on fire due to an equipment malfunction and the cockpit could not be opened in time. Their names were Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee.
Nearly 20 years later another disaster would happen. On January 28, 1986 The space shuttle Challenger took off and exploded in mid-air killing all on board. It was later determined that a ring sealing the fuel takes had frozen and cracked during the cold night and caused the explosion.
Their names were Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A Resnik, Ronald E McNair, Gregory B Jarvis, and S. Christa McAuliffe.
17 years later, on February 1, 2003, NASA would be touched with tragedy again. During reentry, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated killing all on board and scattering debris across Texas. It was determined that a piece of foam protecting the space shuttle from the heat of reentry had become loose and had fallen off during launch. That exposed the inner ship to high temperatures and eventually destroyed the ship.
Those on board were Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon.
Since this essay series is about the women of history, I am going to do a brief bio on the women involved in these tragedies. All members of these crews deserve to be remembered for their sacrifice and one day I may write an essay on the events themselves, allowing me to discuss the men involved in more detail. For now, I will focus on the women astronauts.
Out of the 19 people killed in these tragedies only four were women. They all came from different backgrounds, histories and skill sets. They had one thing in common though; a desire to explore and discover.
Judith A. Resnik
Judith Resnik was born on April 5, 1949 in Akron, Ohio, the daughter of two immigrants. She would attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania were she would earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. She would later earn her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. During her early career she worked for several companies, including Xerox and the National Institute of Health. She also worked on various projects with NASA before her recruitment.
In 1978, Nichelle Nichols recruited her to NASA. She became one of the first women chosen as an astronaut, along with five others including Sally Ride who would be the first one in space. She was named a member of “Group 8”, a collection of 35 astronauts. They were divided into two groups, pilots and mission specialists. Resnik would be a mission specialist, and would specialize in robotics.
Her first mission would on the maidan Voyage of the Space Shuttle Discovery in August of 1984. The mission team spent a week in space, with the task of deploying 3 satellites, studying crystal growth, and experimenting with an IMAX camera. At the time she was the second woman in space, and also the first American Jewish woman to go into space.
She was assigned to be a mission specialist on Challenger ST-51-L. Due to evidence found in the cockpit, it is quite likely that she was one of the last passengers to be alive after the explosion.
After her death she was honored by her alma maters when both choose to name buildings after her. She also has two awards named after her: The IEEE Judith A. Resnik Award (IEEE) and the Resnik Challenger Award (Society of Women Engineers).
Her brother Charles Resnik and other family members of the Challenger astronauts came together to form the Challenger Center in 1986 to promote Stem education and interest for children.
S. Christa McAuliffe
Christa McAuliffe tends to be the most famous of her crewmates by virtue of her reason for being on the mission. McAuliffe was a New Hampshire school teacher who signed up for a program to put a teacher in space. She was a mission specialist, and was going to run various experiments and promote science education.
McAuliffe was born Sharon Christa Corrigan on September 2, 1948 in Boston Massachusetts. Early on she was known by her middle name, Christa. She crew up with the space program and felt inspired by it. She attended Farmington State College in 1970 (and married her longtime boyfriend Steven McAuliffe), getting a bachelors in education and history. She would later attended Bowie State University in 1978, earning her masters in education supervision and administration. She held several jobs as a social studies teacher, traveling as her husband’s career and their family needed them to. In 1983, she accepted her final position as a high school history teacher. She even designed a history course on “The American Woman.”
In 1985, she was selected from several thousand applicants for NASA’s Teacher in space project. She spent a year in training along with her backup, Barbara Morgan, and was scheduled to go into space on Challenger STS-51-L. During that mission she was to conduct several experiments and hold two short lessons from space.
After her death, she was honored by the naming of the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center (Concord, Massachusetts), The Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center for Education and Teaching excellence (Farmington State UNiversity) and several other schools and education centers. Several teaching scholarships as well have been made in her name.
Barbara Morgan would later fly as the first Teacher in space.
It was announced that the lessons and experiments she planned on teaching will be taught on the space Station by Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold during their tours of duty on the station. They will be aired on the Challenger Center website in the spring.
Kalpana Chawla was born on March 17, 1962 in Karnal (Haryana), Punjab, India. She attended the Punjab Engineering College and got a bachelors in Aeronautical engineering. After receiving her degree, she migrated to the United States in 1982 to attend The University of Texas where she earned a masters in Aerospace engineering. She married Jean-Pierre Harrison in 1983. She would earn her Ph.D. in Aero-enginering in 1988 from the University of Colorado.
Once she earned her PHD she went to work for NASA to do research on fluid dynamics with landings. She would later work as a Vice President for Overset Methods continuing her research. She earned licenses to fly several different kinds of aircraft and even certified to be a flight instructor.
In 1993, Chawla became a naturalized Citizen of the United States and formerly applied to join the NASA team. She joined in 1995, and assigned her first flight in 1996. During her time as an Astronaut, Chawla would take two missions into space, both on the space shuttle Columbia.
Her first mission was STS-87, in 1997 where she was responsible for deploying a satellite. The deployment malfunctioned due to computer errors and procedures. There was a five month investigation into the incident that discovered the problems and decided it was not Chawla at fault.
During the down time between her missions, Chawla was assigned to work in the Astronaut office on work on the space station. She was focused on robotics, in particular robotic situational awareness
in 2000, plans for the STS-107 mission began to take shape and Chawla was selected for the seven member crew. Like with the CHallenger, there were several delays due to scheduling and technical problems. It was in January 2003 that the mission finally was launched.
Unlike with Challenger, the Launch was completed successfully, as thought at the time. However, the launch had dislodged a piece of foam causing the heat shield to have a critical weakness. However, the mission itself before the reentry went without issue. In total, Chawla logged 30.5 days in space.
Afterwards, Chawla was honored with several honors, both in the United states and her birth country of India. The Indian satellite program was renamed in her honor, and the first satellite was called Kalpana-1. Several awards and scholarships were named in her honor, and she even got immortalized in fiction, as a shuttle was named after her in Peter David’s Star Trek novel Star Trek: The Next Generation: Before Dishonor.
She and the rest of her crew members have had hills on Mars named after them, as well as asteroids. Her birthplace has named a Medical hospital in her honor, and several schools and housing complexes have named dorms and halls after her.
Laurel Blaire Salton was born on March 10, 1961 in Ames, Iowa. She grew up in Racine, Wisconsin however. She would attend college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1983 she graduated with a bachelor of Science in Zoology in 1983, and would later earn her doctorate in Medicine in 1987.
After completing her doctorate, she served in the United States Navy. She trained with the Experimental Diving Unit, at first focusing on pediatrics before starting training in diving related medicine and diving officer training. This heard her the designation of Radiation Health Officer and Undersea Medical Officer. She was assigned to a submarine Squadron located in Scotland.
After a few years of experience, and a promotion to Naval Submarine Medical Officer, she started training as a Naval Flight Surgeon. This training would come in handy in her later career.
She was selected by NASA to join the astronaut program in 1996 and spent two years in training as a mission specialist. Prior to STS-107, she was assigned to the Astronaut Office Habitability branch. Her total time in space was almost 16 days. Her focus during the Columbia mission was on biosciences research including gardening in space.
She was honored with the Clark Auditorium at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda Maryland. It displays various personal items as well as her uniforms and other space-related materials.
Her husband, Dr. Jonathan Clark, was also a flight surgeon and worked on the investigative team following the Columbia disaster afterwards.
George W. Bush awarded both crews posthumously with the Congressional Space Medal. He awarded it to the crew of Columbia on February 3, 2004 and to the crew of The Challenger on July 23, 2004.
Wikipedia: Challenger STS-51-L
USA Today: Christa McAuliffe’s Science Lessons to be taught aboard Space Station
Challenger Center: Astronauts and Challenger Center to Complete Christa McAuliffe’s Lessons
NASA: Columbia Crew Memorial: Kalpana Chawla
Smithsonian Air & Space Museum Wall of Honor: Kalpana Chawla
NASA: Columbia Memorial: Laurel Clark
Arlington Cemetery Memorial Page: Laurel Clark