Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon

  • Published
Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon by Colin Burgess and Kate Doolan, with Bert Vis. University of Nebraska Press, 2003, 272 pp.

In the race for space, some individuals are associated with the first tentative steps into the vast reaches of the heavens. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has in its history men and women like John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Charles Bolden, Mae Jamison, and Eileen Collins, who rode stacks of metal, tubes, liquid oxygen, and rocket fuel into the skies in the quest for exploration and knowledge of the unknown. We recall them with ease, secure in knowing that their achievements have increased our understanding of what was at one time inconceivable to most people. Another group, no less deserving of our respect, has paid the ultimate price in their efforts to go where no one has gone before.

Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon chronicles the story of people who were lost as they sought to fulfill their dreams of becoming part of the initial cadre of space travelers. These men (and they were mostly men at the time) perished in training, routine proficiency evolutions, or simply unfortunate traffic accidents. Their stories are not well known outside the small circle of astronauts, cosmonauts, and test personnel who worked, drank, and watched the skies with them. Authors Colin Burgess, Kate Doolan, and Bert Vis conducted extensive research into the unique and distinguished history of these men and were significantly aided by recollections of the families who have kept the memories of their sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, and cousins alive these many years. Retired astronaut Eugene Cernan, himself a distinguished member of that stellar group, adds in his foreword that he was amazed at the information the authors found with regard to his former compatriots—information that even he as a contemporary did not know.

The first chapter covers the story of Capt Theodore Cordy Freeman, USAF—graduate of the US Naval Academy’s class of 1953 and a member of the third group of NASA astronauts in 1963. Finishing near the top of every training program, he was well regarded by colleagues, coworkers, family, and friends alike. His stature within the astronaut program led some to believe that he would plant the first footprints on the moon, an honor that we now bestow upon Neil Armstrong. Captain Freeman’s career was on the fast track to allow him to reach goals he set for himself as a young boy in Lewes, Delaware. Sadly, his life was cut short when his T-38 training aircraft suffered a bird strike and twin-engine flameout on approach to Ellington Field in Houston. Unable to perform a dead-stick landing, he attempted to eject, but his aircraft was too low to the ground. Killed upon impact, Captain Freeman was the first US astronaut fatality. His wife, Faith, experienced his loss in a very public way because the astronauts were part of a high-profile publicity campaign to instill confidence about the space program in the American public and to show that we were actively competing against the Soviet Union in the space race.

Written in an easy-to-read style, the book fills in the empty places in the history of the space program that were occupied by these brave individuals. Personal memories by family members humanize their names, yielding a more robust portrait of each man. The following chapters continue to describe these early, would-be pioneers in detail, giving readers insight that would be lost to history, save for the recollections shared between family and friends. Each chapter begins with a recounting of events that led to the mishap—witness, for example, the fate of Maj Edward Galen Givens Jr. (chap. 5), in training to become a command module pilot for the Apollo program. He died after skidding off the road and crashing into an irrigation ditch just outside Houston. After setting the stage for the incident, each chapter then switches to a short account its subject’s life, detailing his birth, schooling, portions of his military career, selection for astronaut training, and the whirlwind events that quickly enveloped him. The chapters culminate with completion of the description of the accident and immediate aftermath as family and friends struggle to cope with the subsequent publicity. The authors devote significant space to the story of the wives and family who continue to experience the good and difficult memories of their moments in the spotlight and examine how those times continued to affect their lives.

A welcome inclusion is chapter 4, which details the lives of several Soviet cosmonauts, the most recognizable of whom is Yuri Gagarin. As the first human to fly in space, he was arguably the most famous individual in the entire book, and his death had a profound effect on the Soviet space program. A Hero of the Soviet Union, he was feted in many lands and throughout the world at large. Although the descriptions of the cosmonauts and their lives are at times slightly less detailed than those of the astronauts—probably due to the difficulty of penetrating the secrecy surrounding the Soviet Union’s space program—they remain a vital element of the overall narrative. These accounts help the reader understand that beneath their space suits, these men—separated by geography and their countries’ political philosophies during a time of strained relations between the world's superpowers—were essentially the same.

The select few people who have been granted the opportunity to journey into space are part of a rare group, but in some ways the passage of time has separated and dehumanized them—a disservice to us all. The authors seek to reverse that trend by filling in a noticeable gap in our knowledge concerning the early years of the space program. Their efforts at chronicling the inevitable cost of our quest to explore the heavens serve as a bittersweet reminder that these stellar individuals were people just like the rest of us, thus strengthening the very foundation from which we launch and continue to reach for the stars.

Lt Col Lloyd Malone Jr., USAF
ACC/AOS Detachment 1
Ramstein AB, Germany

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."