The last Thursday of the month of January has become a day to honor those astronauts who have lost their lives in the pursuit of the conquest of space. Most people don’t realize that there have been three tragedies that have taken the lives of American astronauts, beginning with the fatal fire that consumed the Apollo 1 capsule during a training exercise that occurred on January 27th, 1967. Gus Grissom, the second American in space during the Mercury program, Ed White, the first man to “walk” in space and Roger Chaffee, a rookie astronaut were in their couches, locked in the Apollo capsule when a fire broke out.
It was later determined that a spark ignited the oxygen atmosphere in the capsule and all three men burned to death as the ground crew tried to open the hatch to no avail. In fact, the whole program was put on hold until an entirely new locking system was invented that would allow quick exit from the spacecraft if something like fire ever threatened the lives of the astronauts during an exercise again.
Then, on January 28th, 1986, most Americans who were alive at the time will remember the horrible explosion of the Challenger shuttle as a faulty “O” ring didn’t word as anticipated during liftoff. It turned out that the low temperatures in Florida prior to launch caused the ring to malfunction, allowing the subsequent fire and separation of the rocket to occur.
This was the famous flight that included the first teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who was to perform experiments from space that would be broadcast to classrooms around the country. Sadly, it was not to be. All told seven astronauts lost their lives in this tragedy.
In the most recent incident, NASA experienced the disastrous re-entry of the Columbia shuttle on February 1st, 2003. In that situation, foam insulation broke off from the eternal fuel tanks that carried the Columbia into space. The foam damaged tiles on the underside of spacecraft and the extent of the damage wasn’t immediately known. The shuttle started its return to earth but as the Columbia began its reentry, the damaged area of the shuttle proved to weak to sustain the intense heat and pressure – eventually leading to the destruction of a wing and then the total breakup of the craft.
It was later determined that the Columbia could have remained in orbit until February 15th and the next scheduled flight of Discovery could have been moved up to Feb. 10th, providing a window to rescue the crew and return them safely to earth. At least, repairs could also have been attempted in space to fix the damaged area of the spacecraft. However, it was too late. Another seven astronauts lost their lives that fateful day.
America has lost a total of 17 astronauts through these three tragedies. By the way, Russia has lost four astronauts in its space program making the total of 21 men and women who have died in the pursuit of the conquest of space.
On the evening of January 8, 1986, President Ronald Reagan was supposed to deliver the State of the Union address. Instead, the speech was postponed and Reagan addressed the nation about the Challenger disaster. He borrowed lines from a poem that had been written by John Magee entitled, “High Flight.” Magee had been an aviator during WWII and was inspired to write the poem while climbing to 33,000′ in his Spitfire. Reagan’s address to the nation, as our national eulogist, lasted four minutes and resonated with millions of Americans.
His closing that evening affirmed the fact that our astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” That has always been man’s desire – to touch the face of God. Tonight’s verse highlights the fact that we continually seek the face of God and some day, every Christian will see the face of God. In the meantime, we can cling to the words of the psalmist, who tells us, when we are in distress, in Psalm 102:1-2, “Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly.”
My encouragement this evening is that eventually each Christian will slip the surly bonds of earth and enter eternity. My prayer is that we will all remember this verse when we are about to enter eternity with Jesus and His Father. After all, it is the hope of every believer to “touch the face of God…” Have a great day in the Lord, grace and peace…