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Fifty Years of NASA

NASA 50th Part Five

As NASA celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, the agency, known mostly for its triumphs, is also reflecting on its tragedies. Seventeen astronauts have died since 1967 in three different accidents. In the fifth of a six-part KUHF series, Jack Williams spoke with one man who has been at NASA for the past 42 years. He's watched the agency change after each of those mishaps.


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“Apollo astronauts Roger Chafee, Edward White and Gus Grissom lose their lives in a tragic flash fire aboard their grounded space capsule.”

image of Roger Chafee, Edward White and Gus Grissom The first major hurdle for NASA came on January 27, 1967 when Chafee, White and Grissom were killed during a test of the Apollo module.

“The entire three-man crew was engulfed by flames.”

Milt Helfin had been at NASA for just a few months.

“I thought, my goodness, what are we going to do now? How are we going recover from this? But we did.”

42-years later, he’s still there, now as the the Associate Director of Johnson Space Center’s Technical Operations.

“After that, we very quickly got ourselves back together and did indeed get to the moon and back safely before the end of the decade as President Kennedy wanted us to do. That was a very, very gutsy time in this agency to recover that quickly and get that done.”

Despite some close calls, NASA was relatively trouble-free for almost 20 years, flying to the moon and starting the Space Shuttle Program. But on January 28, 1986, tragedy struck again.

“Flight controllers, you are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

image of Challenger explosionSeven astronauts died when Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart shortly after launch. A seal in a solid rocket booster had failed. President Ronald Reagan addressed a shocked nation.

“Today is a day for mourning and remembering. This is truly a national loss.”

It was almost three years before another shuttle flew. By that time, Milt Heflin was a lead flight director.

“There were many processes and improvements put in place to ensure that we were, as we returned to flight, okay, we now have better products than we had before. Doing that was huge. That was the biggest thing that we ended up doing after Challenger, the loss of Challenger.”

Again, a calm period from 1986 until February 1st, 2003. Controllers in Houston lost contact with the 7-member Columbia crew as the shuttle descended over Texas.

image of 7-member Columbia crew

“Communications with Columbia were loss at about 8 am Central Time.”

Heflin was chief of the flight directors office when Columbia was lost. He still can’t believe a piece of foam led to another dark day at NASA.

“Why in the world didn’t I go make a hell of a lot of noise about this. Why didn’t I? Why didn’t I? And that haunts me to this day and it will haunt me forever. Yeah, foam. It was foam. Absolutely. We just all got fooled.”

He says he’s seen the safety culture change at NASA, one that encourages input from the rank and file.

“Since the loss Columbia we’ve been doing that very, very well and we’ve got to continue to do that.”

image of Milt Heflin
NASA’s Milt Heflin

He admits human space flight is a risky business and everyone who’s a part of it knows that. It’s a risk most of them are willing to take.

Jack Williams, KUHF, Houston Public Radio News

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Jack Williams

News Anchor

Jack is back in Houston after some time away working in public radio and television in Lincoln, Nebraska. Before leaving for the Midwest, he worked in various roles at Houston Public Media from 2000-2016, including reporting, hosting and anchoring. Jack has also worked in commercial news radio in Houston, Austin...

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