The Atlantic

Space Travel's Existential Question

Have we become too squeamish about the inevitable human cost of exploration?
Source: Bruce Weaver / AP

The morning of January 27, 1967, Gus Grissom and his Apollo 1 crew put on their flight suits. Foil-clad, with breathing masks, they looked like a mid-century vision of the future brought to you by Reynolds Wrap. The crew of three were to perform a launch test that day, to see what it would be like when they rode a metal cone to space.*

Grissom had been to space before during the Gemini program. That day’s practice wasn’t going great, not like one would hope an actual launch would go. First, the astronauts smelled something rotten in their oxygen. That delayed them by more than an hour. Then, their communications system began to fritz out. Of this, Grissom famously groused, “How are we going to get to the moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?”

Later, though—into that same microphone and over those same lines—came a single word: “fire.”

It was true: Damaged wires had likely ignited a spark, which fed on the all-oxygen air, growing with its consumption of space-age material—nylon, foam.

The crew tried to escape the capsule. But the hatch wouldn’t open. All three astronauts suffocated inside the vessel that was supposed to carry them—and with them, us—into the future.*

The agency’s two other fatal accidents occurred during the same January week as Apollo’s: Challenger 19 years later, Columbia 17 years after that. And just three years ago, the private-spaceflight industry endured its first human loss, when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo lost its copilot.*

After each fatal incident, the nation has responded with shock and

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