I was in sixth grade at Apollo Elementary when the Challenger exploded. I don’t need a photograph to remember what it looked like that morning. We were in the school parking lot, watching with excitement, and we all knew something had gone terribly wrong. We raced to a teacher’s car and huddled around it, listening to the radio report for several minutes before we were ushered back inside.
One of our classrooms had a large screen we used for lessons, but that day it was tuned to the news as we all searched for answers. It felt like we watched the news for hours, replaying the horrific scene over and over before our teachers tried to return us to a sense of normalcy. How do you study english or history with the memory of such tragic loss looping across your mind’s eye? Most of us had parents who worked at the space center, some had connections with the astronauts onboard.
The following year, my junior high band played at a small memorial service held at Sandpoint Park. I don’t remember much aside from trying not to cry as I played my clarinet.
Since then, the news has marked the day, but we have moved on. It wasn’t until after the Columbia was lost in 2004 that NASA created an official Day of Remembrance for the astronauts who have been lost in the pursuit of space exploration. Most of us know about the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia, but there are several other astronauts who were also lost during training flights or other accidents. Each of these brave men and women are now honored each January 26.
This year, I was fortunate enough to be off work and took the opportunity to be a part of the ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex. It seems fitting that this is year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, an event that has marked me as deeply as Challenger and Columbia, even though it happened more than five years before I was born.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt a connection to Virgil “Gus” Grissom. Maybe it was the alliteration of Gus Grissom that drew me as a child, maybe it’s the way his eyes seem to be looking right into my soul in most photographs I’ve seen. Whatever it is, I found myself focusing on him a great deal during my research for Jessie and everything I learned made me admire him even more. He became such a strong influence on me, that he naturally had a strong influence on young Jessie Cole, the main character in my book.
As I sat in a large room at the Science Education center at KSC among hundreds of other people there to pay tribute to our lost heroes and show support for their families, I held back tears. Not only are the astronauts brave, but so are their families who supported their dreams and watched as they conquered the world. I’ve tried to imagine the life of an astronaut spouse, it’s been the focus of my writing for the past year as I continue Jessie’s story.
After the ceremony, I was determined to speak with Lowell Grissom, Gus’ younger brother. Approaching strangers is way outside my comfort zone, but it was important for me to let someone in the Grissom family know how much I admired Gus and how, generations later, he continues to be an inspiration. Despite knees that threatened to buckle and a heart that pounded so hard I’m surprised those around me weren’t concerned, I made my way to Mr. Grissom, hovering at his elbow while others spoke with him. I shuffled aside when a NASA representative collected him for media interviews, never letting him completely out of my sight. I knew if I left without saying something I would regret it for the rest of my life. Finally, interviews completed he was alone for a moment and I stepped in. Telling him how much I admire his brother and the inspiration I continue to draw from him will always be a moment I hold dear.
Please take a moment to remember those who have sacrificed everything so we can know more and go further. Let us not give up on space exploration and stretching the boundaries of our world. Let us look to the future with the lessons of the past to guide us on our next galactic adventure.