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Ad Astra Per Aspera – A rough road leads to the stars

Apollo 1 Crew (l-r): Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White, Roger B. Chaffee. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Apollo 1 Crew (l-r): Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White, Roger B. Chaffee. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Space Shuttle Challenger, STS-51L, Crew (l-r): Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe, Commander Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, Payload Specialist Gregory B. Jarvis, Mission Specialist Judith A. Resnik, Mission Specialist Ronald E. McNair. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Space Shuttle Challenger, STS-51L, Crew (l-r): Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe, Commander Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, Payload Specialist Gregory B. Jarvis, Mission Specialist Judith A. Resnik, Mission Specialist Ronald E. McNair. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Space Shuttle Columbia, STS-107, Crew (l-r): Mission Specialist 1 David M. Brown, Commander Rick D. Husband, Mission Specialist 4 Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Mission Specialist 2 Kalpana Chawla, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Specialist 1 Ilan Ramon. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Space Shuttle Columbia, STS-107, Crew (l-r): Mission Specialist 1 David M. Brown, Commander Rick D. Husband, Mission Specialist 4 Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Mission Specialist 2 Kalpana Chawla, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Specialist 1 Ilan Ramon. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

On Jan. 30, the country honored the lives of 17 Astronauts who gave their life in pursuit of exploring the unknown. All three of the United States’ catastrophic space accidents occurred within six days of each other, over a span of 36 years. Of the 17 astronauts lost during these tragic accidents, five were USAF Test Pilot School alumni who had flown in the hollowed skies above the Aerospace Valley.

Fifty-three years ago, on Jan. 27, 1967, Astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom (USAF TPS), Edward White II (USAF TPS) and Roger Chaffee lost their lives during what was deemed at the time as a non-hazardous ground test in preparation for the first flight of the new Apollo spacecraft. The loss of the crew was the first for United States and dealt a devastating gut-punch to a nation undertaking arguably mankind’s most monumental task: to land a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade.

Thirty-three years ago, on Jan. 28, 1987, America experienced a similar tragedy with the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. After six years of routine launches, many Americans tuned-out the now normal occurrence of spaceflight and most media outlets no longer covered launches. However, this particular flight was different since it showcased the first teacher to go into space – Christa McCauliffe. The launch was highly publicized and broadcasted to a captivated nation, including school children across the country who eagerly sat in the classrooms awaiting the historic moment. Just 73 seconds after leaving the Launchpad, the shuttle broke apart and Astronauts Michael Smith, Dick Scobee (USAF TPS), Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka (USAF TPS), Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik were lost.

Thirteen years ago, on Feb. 1, 2003, the United States experienced its third spaceflight tragedy with the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia. Unbeknownst to the crew and mission control team, the shuttle’s heat shield was fatally damaged during liftoff. The spacecraft broke apart during re-entry and Astronauts Rick Husband (USAF TPS), Kalpana Chawla, William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson Ilan Ramon were lost.

After each tragedy, the nation rallied together and made the collective commitment to not quit and let these losses be in vain. NASA learned from each fatal mistake, implementing new design and procedural changes to ensure the safe continuation of human exploration. Perhaps most important of all, they established a culture where anyone within the organization could speak up and call “knock it off” if they believe something wasn’t right.

Though the mission of Edwards Air Force Base differs in some ways from that of our NASA brethren, our causes are the same and can best be described by the Air Force Test Center Motto “Ad Inexplorata” – Toward the Unexplored.

As we honor the lives of these 17 fallen heroes, we are reminded of the cost this country has paid as we move further into the unknown. Like these heroes, the men and women of Edwards Air Force Base are explorers in every meaning of the word. They show up every day to the Center of the Aerospace Testing Universe ready to push boundaries and expand envelopes to deliver unmatched capabilities to the Warfighter. Our nation has placed a tremendous responsibility upon us - to mold and shape America’s arsenal. Our work will never be done; we must continue to employ our world-class risk management and always continue toward the unknown.