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Tragedies part of the space industry experience

Dale Shrull
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

RIFLE, Colorado – Tom Collins has never been to the moon, but he knows men who have. Likewise into space.

During his 37 years as a space industry engineer, the 68-year-old Collins has reveled in the amazing accomplishments that are now part of our history.

Collins has experienced the highs and lows of the industry. Over his career, he worked on the Mercury and Apollo projects, as well as unmanned missions to Mars and Venus, missions to the space station, the Hubble Telescope, and a number of space shuttle missions.



Every mission was packed with anxiety and worry, and most were greeted with tremendous relief and satisfaction when they were over.

Talking about the many missions he was part of, Collins’ pride gushes out. He knows that he was part of something very memorable and historic.



But pride and excitement give way to a somber tone when he talks about the devastating lows.

There was a horrifying accident in the early years of the Apollo program.

“Grissom, White and Chaffee.”

Collins speaks the three names with the quickness of remembering his best friend from childhood.

“I’ll never forget those three men. Seeing them in that burning capsule was terrible,” he says

In the quest for space, this horrible disaster happened on the launching pad on Jan. 27, 1967. The Apollo 1 fire consumed the craft and killed the three astronauts – Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee.

He winces a little when he talks about that dreadful chapter in the crusade to conquer space exploration.

Nineteen years and one day after the Apollo 1 tragedy, Space Shuttle Challenger blasted off. On Jan. 28, 1986, Collins again watched in horror as just 73 seconds into the flight, the ghastly image of Challenger exploding and breaking apart over the Atlantic Ocean stunned a nation and world.

As much as Neil Armstrong’s words thrilled and amazed people when he stepped onto the moon 40 years ago, the Challenger tragedy plummeted a mortified world into a crater of sadness.

Collins was part of the stunned masses who cried.

“Damn right, I knew those people,” Collins says sternly when talking about shedding tears for fallen astronauts through the years. “There were a lot of tears. I cried a lot of tears.”

It’s the Challenger tragedy that torments Collins even today. He got to know the Challenger crew more than any other crew during his 37 years.

“I remember all of that mission. There were a lot of delays, not weather related, just problems. I really got to know that crew because we were always waiting around so much,” he says.

His normally energetic voice drops, as do his eyes when he talks about that fatal mission.

The blast off was always the biggest concern, he says.

“You always worried that something like [Challenger] would happen.”

He remembers Hawaiian-born astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who got seeds from his mother’s papaya tree and gave them to Collins during one of the down times of the mission.

But it may be the only nonastronaut on that crew that brings back many of the memories of that horrible day.

Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher from teacher from Concord, N.H., was chosen to be the first teacher to fly in space.

“I’m not sure if she knew what she was getting into. The astronauts knew the dangers, and they knew that anything could happen,” Collins says. “I’m not sure if they made it clear to her.”

Following the tragedy, Collins had no time to grieve. He was put on the Challenger investigation team.

“I couldn’t get away from it for quite a while.”

Eventually, the real sadness of the tragedy hit him.

A memorial to the seven Challenger crew members is located in Arlington National Cemetery.

Collins says that worry was always part of the space industry. Mainly because if things went wrong, the results were tragic and catastrophic.

Even as he remembers the historic relevance of Apollo 11 on its 40th anniversary, Collins will no doubt take a moment to reflect and remember the names of those who died in the quest for space.

The failed missions also had a hand in the successes of the space industry, and Collins knows that very well.


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