EXCERPT: Fallen Astronauts

The following is an excerpt from Fallen Astronauts: Heroes who Died Reaching for the Moon, Revised Edition by Colin Burgess and Kate Doolan (Nebraska, 2016). 

Introduction

In the final phases of the last moon walk by the Apollo 15 astronauts on 2 August 1971, a small but unsanctioned ceremony was carried out amid the deep lunar valleys at Hadley Rille.

Mission commander Dave Scott had recently conducted his “Galileo Experiment” in front of the lunar module Falcon, simultaneously dropping a falcon’s feather and a geology hammer, both hitting the lunar surface at the same instant. Soon afterward Scott disappeared behind the lunar rover, which he and Jim Irwin had driven across the moon’s surface. Back in Houston CapCom (capsule communicator) and fellow astronaut Joe Allen, anxious to record every activity, asked what was taking place up there at Hadley Base. “Oh, just cleaning up the back of the Rover here a little, Joe,” was the noncommittal response. In fact Scott and Irwin were conducting a small, unofficial commemoration of the eight astronauts and six cosmonauts known (at that time) to have died prior to their lunar mission.

Meanwhile the third member of the Apollo 15 crew, Al Worden, was orbiting the moon in Endeavour, the command module. As his part of the tribute he had organized a small tin figurine by noted sculptor Paul Van Hoeydonck called The Fallen Astronaut. Jim Irwin’s responsibility had been to place the fourteen names alphabetically on a small metal plaque. In these few stolen moments, without NASA’s knowledge or consent, Dave Scott stuck the plaque into the lunar soil and placed the deliberately toppled figurine in front of it. He then moved back and photographed the small memorial.

All was later revealed at the postflight press conference, and years afterward Dave Scott would recall the crew’s tribute to the fourteen men:

We made a plaque for all the astronauts and cosmonauts that had been killed. And a little figurine, a Fallen Astronaut, and we put it right by the Rover. You can see it in the picture [NASA photo 88-11894].

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That was just a little memorial, in alphabetical order. In relative terms, we had lost a lot and, interestingly enough, we didn’t lose any more after that until Challenger. That’s what I was doing when I said I was clearing up behind the Rover. Jim knew what I was doing. We just thought we’ d recognize the guys that made the ultimate contribution. We felt satisfied in doing it. Several good guys didn’t get to go.

 This book is a further manifestation of that commemoration to a handful of men who died reaching for their ultimate goal—the moon. Four astronauts died in airplane accidents, three suffered a horrifying death in a launch pad fire, and another was killed in an automobile crash.

These eight men were all superb pilots, and each undoubtedly would have had a profound participation in NASA’s Apollo program. The composition of several Apollo crews would doubtless have been different had they lived, and it might even have been an astronaut called Gus who placed the first human footprint in the lunar soil, rather than a colleague named Neil.

Of course speculation cannot displace the ultimate course of history, but all eight men lost their opportunity to reach for the moon as the result of accidents. In the fatal blink of an eye they also lost their chance for spaceflight immortality. Their families, too, suffered deeply, not only through the traumatic loss of a loved son, husband, sibling, or father but also through subsequently losing their own familiar role as the wife, child, or other loved one of an astronaut. Most of the widows, no longer feeling like part of the astronaut community, soon sold up and moved away.

In many ways this has not been an easy book to write, and not just because of the disadvantage of conducting research from Australia. Dozens of friends and families of the eight astronauts were contacted, as well as many educators and colleagues whose lives crossed those of the fallen men. Fortunately many recognized the worth of this venture and responded, despite the necessity of recalling many sorrowful events, and their participation is greatly appreciated.

Beyond supplying photographs NASA could offer only brief stock biographies of the eight men, but we also understand the need for the agency to maintain codes of privacy and integrity concerning its astronauts.

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The passage of five decades presented an almost insurmountable challenge, but one that we mostly and steadily overcame. Several Apollo-era astronauts who were friends of the eight men were contacted, but many, mistrustful because of an odious commercial market in astronaut signatures, initially chose to ignore our letters and messages. Happily, once family members assured them of our good intentions, a few came around, supplying information and anecdotal material on their former colleagues. Also, fortunately, many others had discussed the deceased astronauts in a proliferation of post-Apollo astronaut biographies, and the authors have gratefully drawn upon these memories and words to present a more balanced account of the men’s lives.

There is a great iniquity in the stories of these eight astronauts, and it is a major reason for compiling this book. With the obvious exception of the Apollo 1 crew, precious little has ever been written about these remarkable men, their shortened lives, their ambitions, and their hard-won place among their nation’s revered astronauts. Searching recent authoritative chronologies for their names has shown that in many instances they are missing.

It is the sincere wish of the authors that this book helps to fill a capacious void in astronaut, spaceflight, and indeed American and Soviet history. We should never forget the brave and remarkable men of both the United States and the former Soviet Union who gave their lives in their countries’ unquenchable search for knowledge and understanding.