an astronaut in space with earth in background

Has Anyone Died In Space? A memorial to those who have lost their lives in the pursuit of space exploration

Last Updated: March 27, 2024

Space exploration is a dangerous endeavor, and despite our best efforts to ensure the safety of the people involved, accidents have occurred. The people who died in space exploration efforts were brave and dedicated. 

They gave their lives in service to a goal greater than themselves, and they will be remembered for their contributions. Their memories will live on in the hearts of those who knew them, and in the work they accomplished. 

In this article, we will memorialize them and their efforts in expanding our knowledge of the solar system through space exploration.

Table of Contents

Introduction/ Background

To address the question of if anyone has died in space, we need to define space. In addition, casualties that occur in the pursuit of space exploration encompass a wide array of situations and possibilities. However, let’s start with the most basic question and then move forward.

When is something considered to have happened in space? While the edge of space is not universally adopted or accepted, NASA’s definition for the start of space is 50 miles (80km) in altitude while the Kármán line set by the international record-keeping body FAI (Fédération aéronautique internationale) defines it at 330,000 ft/ 62 miles/ 100 km above mean sea level. Both of these definitions are primarily for legal and regulatory purposes as opposed to physical characteristics of the atmosphere, etc.

However, not all accidents relating to space exploration could occur officially above either line. So, we also have to include those that occur during a spaceflight mission. Finally, we also have to consider the training and tests for these missions as these were still in the pursuit of space exploration. 

astronauts floating in space

Three people have died above the Kármán line

Soyuz 11

Soyuz 11 was the only crewed mission to board Salyut 1, the world’s first station. The Soyuz 11 crew, consisted of Georgy Dobrovolsky (commander), Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev. Not much is recorded about Dobrovolsky. Volkov was an aviation engineer who was involved in the development of the Vostok and Vokshod spacecraft prior to his selection as a cosmonaut, with his first flight being aboard Soyuz 7 in 1969. 

They arrived at the space station on June 7th, 1971, performed a variety of duties (Patsayev became the first man to operate a telescope outside the Earth’s atmosphere when he operated the Orion 1 Space Observatory), and departed on 29 June 1971.

Undocking occurred at 18:28 GMT and the Soyuz 11 flew co-orbit before it retro-fired at 22:35 GMT in preparation for re-entry. Before re-entering the atmosphere, both the work compartment and the service module were jettisoned at about 22:47 GMT, when radio communications abruptly ended when the work compartment separated, well before the normal ionospheric blackout of communications due to re-entry. 

The capsule landed as planned, but when the recovery crew opened the capsule, all three cosmonauts were dead, making them the first and only humans to have died in space.

Autopsies quickly confirmed that they had asphyxiated– suffocated– but the reason why was not immediately apparent. Later investigations confirmed that when the Soyuz 11 capsule undocked from space station Salyut 1 on June 30, 1971, a cabin vent valve construction defect caused it to open during capsule separation before re-entry causing instant depressurization, similar to what would happen if an astronaut removed their helmet in space.

The Soviet Union decided to focus on the accomplishments of the astronauts during the mission and downplay the tragedy, choosing to not release the official cause of death until two years later. This decision weighed heavily on NASA as they were planning their upcoming Skylab program and were concerned about the dangers to their astronauts.

The crew’s ashes were placed in an urn in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis in Moscow and they were all posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, the Order of Lenin, and the title of Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR. There is a memorial of their sacrifice at the landing site of the capsule. 

In addition, they have been listed on several memorials, including the Fallen Astronaut commemorative plaque placed on the Moon during the Apollo 15 mission that summer. They are also honored with craters named after them on the moon and a group of hills on Pluto.

1 fatality above NASA’s definition of the beginning of space

X-15 Flight 191

Michael J. Adams was an aviator, aeronautical engineer, USAF astronaut, and one of 10 pilots to fly the X-15 an experimental hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft/ spaceplane operated by the Air Force and NASA. 

On November 15th, 1967, Michael J. Adams piloted the 191st free flight (Adams’s seventh X-15 flight), carrying seven experiments to a peak altitude of 266,000 ft (50.4 miles/ 81 km), just above NASA’s definition of the start of space, but below the Kármán line definition. 

An electrical and control failure occurred minutes after launch, causing Adams to lose control and the plane broke apart at about 65,000 feet (19.8 km), 10 minutes and 35 seconds after launch. 

Besides the initial electrical disturbance, cockpit instrumentation was functioning accurately and therefore, it was determined that it was a combination of distraction, misinterpretation of the displays, possible vertigo, and the MH-96 adaptive control system in addition to the electrical malfunction and the stress it caused that ultimately was the reason for the accident.

He was posthumously awarded astronaut wings since he crossed NASA’s definition of the beginning of space and his name appears on the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

3 accidents on the way into space or heading back to Earth from space

Soyuz 1

Vladimir Komarov was a Soviet test pilot, aerospace engineer, and cosmonaut. He commanded Voskhod 1, the first spaceflight to carry more than one crew member, in October 1964. When he was selected as the solo pilot of Soyuz 1, he became the first Soviet cosmonaut to fly in space twice. 

On April 23rd, 1967, Soyuz 1 launched into orbit despite failures of the previous uncrewed tests of the spacecraft. There were multiple issues during the flight, which Komarov handled admirably, adjusting to each.

However, parachute failure caused his Soyuz capsule to crash after re-entry, on April 24th, making him the first human to die in a space flight. Multiple cosmonauts reacted to his death, speaking about how it is harder for the trailblazers. Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space and the backup for this mission alluded to the administration not listening to and addressing known problems with the craft. 

Reportedly, according to former KGB agent Venyamin Russayev, engineers’ concerns were overruled by party leaders and political pressures for space feats to mark the anniversary of Lenin’s birthday. There were also reported attempts to opt for the backup, Gagarin, over Komarov as the threat to a national hero might dissuade the powers that be from moving forward with the mission. 

Despite believing the mission to be doomed, Komarov reportedly refused to step down from the mission as he did not want to risk Gagarin’s life instead. There is disagreement over the validity of these claims, but it is known that there were known issues with the spacecraft, but the mission was still cleared, not the first or last time a decision of this kind was made.

Komarov received multiple posthumous medals and awards for his sacrifice. There is a memorial monument in a small park at the crash site 1.9 miles (3 km) west of Karabutak and about 171 miles (275 km) East-SouthEast of Orenburg and a commemorative bust in Cosmonauts Alley in Moscow. 

On the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong’s final task was to place a small package of memorial items to honor Soviet cosmonauts Komarov, Yuri Gagarin, and the Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. His name also appears on the Apollo 15 Fallen Astronaut Plaque. Both an asteroid and a crater on the moon are named after Komarov.

rocket launch at night

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

The Space Shuttle was a partially reusable spacecraft operated by NASA, flying for the first time in April 1981 utilizing a reusable winged orbiter that launched vertically using external tanks and landed as a glider. Challenger was the second orbiter constructed after Columbia.

Delayed numerous times due to bad weather and technical glitches, on January 28th, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch at 46,000 feet (14 km) above the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral due to launch booster failure. It was the first fatal accident involving an American spacecraft while in flight. 

Designated STS-51-L, it was the tenth flight for the orbiter and the 25th flight of the Space Shuttle fleet. Its main mission was to deploy a NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite and study Halley Comet using Spartan (Shuttle Pointed Autonomous Research Tool for Astronomy. The flight also included NASA’s first Teacher in Space, Christa McAuliffe, who would have educational content from the shuttle. The launch and subsequent disaster were broadcast live across schools in the US.

President Reagan created the Rogers Commission to investigate the accident. It was determined that the cause was the primary and secondary redundant O-ring seals in the shuttle’s right solid rocket booster (SRB) as the record low temperatures on the morning of the launch had stiffened them, reducing their ability to seal the joints. 

The seals breached shortly after liftoff and the hot pressurized gas from the SRB leaked, burning through the attachment strut and then the external propellant tank, tearing the spacecraft apart. It is estimated that at least some of the crew may have survived the initial breakup of the craft, but not the impact with the ocean surface.

The disaster caused a 32–month hiatus for the Space Shuttle program, primarily due to the investigation. The commission found that test data since 1977 had shown a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-Rings but neither NASA nor the SRB manufacturer addressed the issue and NASA managers disregarded engineers’ warnings about the cold temperatures on the day of launch, not passing these warnings onto superiors. 

Due to the disaster as well as the commission’s findings and criticisms of the NASA decision hierarchy, NASA established the Office of Safety, Reliability, and Quality Assurance and reassigned deployment of commercial satellites from crewed orbiters to expendable launch vehicles. 

The construction of Space Shuttle Endeavor to replace Challenger was approved in 1987 and first launched in 1992. SRBs were redesigned and crews were required to wear pressurized suits during ascent and reentry moving forward.

All crew members were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004. A portrait of the crew was added to the Brumidi Corridors of the US Capitol. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex opened the “Forever Remembered” exhibit in July 2015 to commemorate their service and others’. 

A tree for each astronaut was planted in NASA’s Astronaut Memorial Grove at Johnson Space Center. Each had an asteroid and a Moon crater within the Apollo Basin named after them. Several memorials and monuments have been established around the country. The 1986 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home movie was dedicated to the crew of the Challenger with an opening message. 

There have been numerous books, films, and television movies and shows that have documented the disaster and the crew. The Challenger Center was established in 1986 by the families of the crew in honor of these astronauts with the goal of increasing children’s inters in STEM. The astronauts were:

F. Richard “Dick” Scobee, Commander

Scobee was a pilot, engineer, and astronaut. He was selected for NASA Astronaut Corps in January 1978 and completed his training in August 1979. He served as an instructor pilot for the Shuttle’s 747 carrier aircraft while awaiting his first orbital spaceflight mission. In April 1984, he piloted Challenger mission STS-41-C, which successfully deployed one satellite and repaired another.

In 2004, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. A number of schools, streets, and municipal facilities like airports in the U.S. were renamed in his honor. In 1994, the San Antonio College Planetarium was rededicated as the Scobee Planetarium.

space shuttle landing

Micahel J. Smith, Pilot

Smith was an engineer and astronaut as well as a Navy pilot, flying 28 different types of civilian and military aircraft and 4,867 hours of flight time during his Naval career. He was selected for the astronaut program in May 1980, serving as a commander in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL), Deputy Chief of Aircraft Operations Division, Technical Assistant to the Director, Flight Operations Directorate, and was also assigned to the Astronaut Office Development and Test Group. 

He was also slated for future shuttle mission STS-61-I in addition to piloting Challenger. Evidence from the crash indicates he attempted to restore electrical power to the cockpit after the crew cabin detached from the rest of the orbiter and likely made other attempts to save the craft and crew during the disaster.

He posthumously received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal in addition to his other awards during his Naval career. An airfield in his hometown of Beaufort, North Carolina is named after him.

Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist

McNair was a NASA astronaut and physicist. Prior to the disaster, he flew as a mission specialist on Challenger STS-41-B in February 1984. He was the second African American and first member of the Baháʼí Faith to fly in space. 

He was one of several recruited by actress Nichelle Nichols (best known for her role of Uhura in Star Trek), as part of a NASA effort to increase the number of minority and female astronauts. He worked in the experimentation team, Orbiter test team, and launch support crew at Kennedy Space Center for STS-1 and STS-2. At NASA, he worked on the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL) test and revision software team.

He was a saxophonist who worked with French composer and performer Jean-Michel Jarre and was planning on recording his saxophone solo for the upcoming Rendez-Vous album onboard Challenger as well as participate in the Rendez-Vous Houston concert via live feed from the Shuttle. This would have made it the first original piece of music to be recorded in space. Jean-Michel Jarre’s album’s final track included a commemorative subtitle “Ron’s Piece”.

A variety of public places, people, and programs have been renamed in his honor including multiple schools, the crater McNair on the Moon, the McNair Building at MIT (his alma mater) and other buildings at universities, the Ronald E. McNair Space Theater inside the Davis Planetarium, the TRIO Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, and the federally-funded McNair Scholars/Achievement Programs. 

The song “A Drop Of Water”, by Japanese jazz artist Keiko Matsui, with vocals by the late Carl Anderson, was written in tribute to McNair.

Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist

Onizuka was an astronaut, engineer, and USAF Flight Test engineer from Hawaii. He previously flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery for STS-51-C, making him the first Asian American and the first person of Japanese origin to reach space. 

He was selected for the astronaut program in January 1978 and completed in August 1979. STS-51-C was the first Space Shuttle mission for the Department of Defense and Onizuka, as a payload specialist, completed 48 orbits around the Earth with 74 hours in space. At the time of his death, he was a lieutenant colonel, but was posthumously promoted to colonel.

Many public places, astronomical features, objects, and programs have been named after him including:

  • Onizuka Air Force Station in Sunnyvale, California and Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keāhole
  • The Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center at Kona International Airport in Hawaii
  • An asteroid and moon crater
  • The Cygnus NG-16 ISS resupply spacecraft S.S. Ellison Onizuka
  • The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii
  • Every new standard U.S. passport contains his quotation: “Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds… to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.” 
  • The Hawaii Space Grant Consortium holds an annual Astronaut Ellison Onizuka Science Day

Judith “Judy” Resnik, Mission Specialist

Resnik was an electrical engineer, software engineer, biomedical engineer, pilot, and NASA astronaut. She was the fourth woman, the second American woman, and the first Jewish woman of any nationality to fly in space, logging 145 hours in orbit. 

She was also the sixteenth woman in the US to achieve a perfect score on the SAT exam. She worked as an engineer on Navy missile and radar projects as well as a senior systems engineer for Xerox in addition to being a pilot and a biomedical engineering research fellow. 

At 28, she was accepted as part of NASA Astronaut Group 8 as a mission specialist, the first group to include women. During astronaut training, she developed software and operating procedures for NASA missions. 

She completed her first space flight in 1984 on STS-41-D, the twelfth Space Shuttle flight and Discovery’s maiden trip, during which she operated its robotic arm that she helped create. She and the crew deployed satellites and the OAST-1 solar array wing and filmed the mission using an IMAX camera for The Dream Is Alive documentary. Her next shuttle mission was STS-51-L, during which many of her duties would have been related to assisting Christa, the Teacher in Space.

Resnik was posthumously awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal (for her Discovery spaceflight) and is commemorated on the Space Mirror Memorial. There are numerous landmarks and buildings named after her, including a dormitory at her alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, and schools including her elementary school in Akron. 

An asteroid, a crater on the moon, and a crater on Venus are named after her. There are numerous awards and medals in her honor. 

space shuttle in space

Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist

Jarvis was an American engineer, US Air Force Captain, and astronaut. He worked for Hughes Aircraft and was one of two employees selected as candidates for the Space Shuttle program with his duties focused on conducting experiments on the effects of weightlessness on fluids.

 He was originally scheduled to fly in April 1985, but his seat was taken by U.S. Senator Jake Garn, and so was rescheduled to January 1986, but was replaced yet again by U.S. Representative Bill Nelson.

He has been commemorated with public buildings including The East Engineering building at University at Buffalo (SUNY) which was renamed Jarvis Hall and a High School in Mohawk, NY. 

A sculpture by SUNY at Buffalo faculty member emeritus Tony Paterson was commissioned by the school to honor Jarvis and is currently part of their art collection, entitled “Jarvis Memorial”. The hydropower-producing dam on Hinckley Lake, NY is named after him.

Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, teacher

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Sharon Christa Corrigan watched the Space Age unfold and was inspired by Project Mercury and the Apollo missions. She taught American History, English, Law, and economics (in addition to a self-designed “The American Woman” course) for middle school and high school in Concord, NH, and the nearby town of Bow as well as in Maryland earlier in her career.

In 1984, the Teacher in Space project was announced which would select their first civilian, an educator to fly to space who could communicate with students while in orbit. NASA hoped sending a teacher into space would increase public interest in the Space Shuttle program and demonstrate the reliability of space flight. 

Out of the over 11,000 applicants, McAuliffe was one of 2 teachers nominated by NH and progressed to the 114 semi-finalist pool which was then whittled down to 10 finalists in the summer of 1985. 

After medical examinations, briefings about space flight, and interviews by an evaluation committee, on July 19, 1985, Vice President George H.W. Bush announced that she was selected for the position with Barbara Morgan as backup. Her “infectious enthusiasm” as well as being the “most broad-based, best-balanced person” ultimately led to her selection according to various sources.

She and Morgan participated in a year-long training program for her planned duties:

  • Basic science experiments regarding chromatography, hydroponics, magnetism, and Newton’s Laws 
  • Two 15-minute classes from space including a tour of the spacecraft dubbed “The Ultimate Field Trip” and a lesson plan about the benefits of space travel dubbed “Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, Why” that would be broadcast to millions of schoolchildren

She also appeared on multiple television programs to promote the event. This push by NASA to gain public attention for the Space Shuttle, primarily using the Teacher in Space program, likely caused the significant effect that this disaster had on the nation and on the public’s view of space travel moving forward.

McAuliffe has been honored and memorialized in a variety of ways:

  • At events including the 1986 Daytona 500 NASCAR race
  • About 40 schools across the world have been named after her
  • The McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH
  • The Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center for Education and Teaching Excellence at her alma mater Framingham State University
  • The Framingham State College McAuliffe Center
  • The McAuliffe Branch Library in Framingham, MA
  • An asteroid, a Moon crater, and a crater on Venus have been named after her
  • Scholarships and other awards have been established in her memory
  • The Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference has been held in Nashua, NH annually since 1986, dedicated to the use of tech in education
  • She or memorials of her have been included in various documentaries, films, and even a children’s science-fiction series called Space Cases

For the 30th-anniversary remembrance of the disaster, teachers who applied for the Teacher in Space Program traveled to Cape Canaveral to honor her. She was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum the next year. 

In 2019, Congress passed the Christa McAuliffe Commemorative Coin Act for up to 350,000 $1 silver coins in commemoration of her service that were minted in 2021.

Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

STS-107 was the 113th flight of the Space Shuttle program, the 28th flight for the Space Shuttle Columbia, and the 88th post-Challenger-disaster mission. It launched from Kennedy Space Center on January 16, 2003, and spend almost 16 days in orbit, conducting various international scientific experiments including the SPACEHAB Double Research Module, the Freestar experiment, video observations of atmospheric dust, and the Extended Duration Orbiter pallet. Working 24 hours a day in two alternating shifts, the crew conducted about 80 experiments.

On February 1st, 2003, on its way back to Earth, Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entry, sixteen minutes before the scheduled landing. A 7-month investigation known as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. 

Thanks to the investigation, it was confirmed that the accident was due to damage to the thermal protection system that was caused when a piece of foam insulation fell off the external tank and hit the shuttle during launch. When Columbia reentered the atmosphere, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate the heat shield and destroy the internal structure of the wing, causing the shuttle to become unstable and break apart. 

Although a Flight Risk Management and Debris Assessment Team made up of NASA, United Space Alliance, and Boeing engineers and program managers analyzed the damage done by the foam insulation, there was disagreement on the risk and ultimately concluded there were no safety concerns.

Since much of the data was transmitted during the mission, NASA estimated that 35-40% of total data from the experiments was saved thanks to an additional 5-10% from salvaged hard drives. Certain payloads such as the FREESTAR experiments were successfully recovered and the data was saved. 

Space Shuttle flight operations were suspended for over two years and construction of the International Space Station was paused. Multiple technical and organizational changes were made to subsequent NASA missions including the addition of an on-orbit inspection to determine the state of the Thermal Protection System (TPS) after launch and keeping designated rescue missions ready. 

With the exception of one mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, future Space Shuttle missions were flown only to the ISS to have a safe haven for astronauts if damage prevented reentry. The Space Shuttle program was retired after the ISS was finished.

Memorial services on February 4th were held by President George W. Bush at Johnson Space Center (for the families) and by Vice President Cheney at Washington National Cathedral as well as a later memorial service on the 7th at Kennedy Space Center. 

In October, the names of the astronauts were added to the Space Mirror Memorial at KSC Visitor Complex, and on February 2, 2004, a memorial for the crew was unveiled at Arlinton National Cemetery near the Challenger memorial. A tree for each member of the crew was planted in NASA’s Astronaut Memorial Grove at Johson Space Center. 

The “Forever Remembered” exhibit at KSC Visitor Complex also honors the Columbia astronauts and features the cockpit window frames. The crew received posthumous Congressional Space Medals of Honor in 2004 (along with the crew of the Challenger disaster). Seven asteroids and seven lunar craters were named in memory of the seven crew members. 

On Mars, the landing site of the Spirit Rover was named Columbia Memorial Station, a memorial plaque was mounted on the rover, and a group of seven hills east of the landing site was dubbed the Columbia Hills (each of the hills was individually named for a member of the crew). The Florida Institute of Technology named the Columbia Village apartments in honor of their sacrifice, with a hall for each of the crew. 

Books and documentaries have been made about the disaster and the astronauts The astronauts onboard were: 

space shuttle Columbia crew

Rick D. Husband, Commander

Husband was a colonel in the US Air Force and test pilot. He was selected as an astronaut candidate in December 1994 in the same week he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In March 1995, he began his year of training and evaluation. 

After training, he became the Astronaut Office representative for Advanced Projects at Johnson Space Center, working on Space Shuttle Upgrades, the Crew Return Vehicle (CRV), and studies to return to the Moon and travel to Mars. 

He was a part of STS-96 in 1999, a 10-day mission during which the crew performed the first docking with the ISS and delivered 4 tons of logistics and supplies for the first crew to live on the station who would arrive early the following year.

In addition to the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, he posthumously received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the NASA Space Flight Medal. 

A number of public places, buildings, programs, roads, and more have been named after Husband. The Cygnus CRS OA-6 uncrewed resupply spacecraft was dubbed the S.S. Rick Husband.

William C. McCool, Pilot

McCool was an American naval officer and aviator, test pilot, aeronautical engineer, and NASA astronaut. He completed flight training and was designated a Naval Aviator in August 1986. Over the next decade, McCool accumulated over 2,800 hours of flight experience in 24 aircraft and over 400 carrier arrestments in a variety of positions and with a variety of planes, becoming a US Navy commander. 

In 1996, he was selected for NASA’s astronaut program. He completed two years of training and evaluation and qualified for flight assignments as a pilot. McCool was initially assigned to the Computer Support Branch, served as technical assistant to the director of flight crew operations, and worked Shuttle cockpit upgrade issues for the Astronaut Office. McCool was selected as the pilot for Space Shuttle mission STS-107 for his first space mission and was the youngest male member of the crew at 41.

McCool was posthumously awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. Like the others, many different public places such as buildings, schools, fields, memorials, parks, and more have been named after him, particularly in Lubbock, TX (Willie McCool Track and Field, Willie McCool Memorial with Bronze Sculpture at Huneke Park, and the Commander William C. McCool Academy). 

The Willie McCool Monument at the U.S. Naval Academy Golf Course stands where Willie would have been 16 minutes from the finish line during his fastest race on Navy’s home course. He is honored in the Star Trek book Mirror Universe–Glass Empires where a shuttlecraft is named the McCool and in the spacefaring game Elite: Dangerous where a starport is named “McCool City”.

David M, Brown, Mission Specialist

Brown was a Navy captain, doctor in medicine, flight surgeon, and NASA astronaut. In 1988, he became the only flight surgeon in a decade to be chosen for pilot training and was designated as a Naval Aviator in 1990. 

After logging over 2,700 flight hours (1,700 of which were in high-performance military aircraft), he qualified as the first pilot for the NASA T-38 aircraft. Brown became an astronaut in 1996, completed 2 years of training and evaluation, and then qualified for flight assignment as a mission specialist. 

He was initially assigned to support payload development for the ISS, and then the astronaut support team. However, his first spaceflight was STS-107.

He was the first person ever to be posthumously awarded the William & Mary Alumni Association’s, Alumni Medal. Like the others, public locations, centers, schools, and endowments have been named after him including:

  • The Laurel B. Clark and David M. Brown Aerospace Medicine Academic Center, located at the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute
  • The Captain David Brown Aerospace and Medical Research Endowment
  • The David M. Brown Planetarium
  • The Dave Brown Memorial Park in Friendswood, Texas
  • The annual Astronaut Dave Brown Memorial gymnastics meet held at the College of William & Mary in his honor, where Dave Brown was a gymnast
  • David Brown Hopes & Dreams Scholarship

Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist

Chawla was an Indian-born American astronaut and aerospace engineer who was the first woman of Indian origin to go to space. After completing her second Master’s and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in 1988, she began working at NASA Ames Research Center on computational fluid dynamics research for vertical and/or short take-offs and landings. 

In 1993, she became the vice president and Research Scientist at Overset Methods, Inc. She held a Certified Flight Instructor rating for airplanes and gliders, and Commercial Pilot licenses for single and multi-engine airplanes, seaplanes, and gliders. Once she became a naturalized U.S. citizen in April 1991, she applied for the NASA Astronaut Corps and joined in March 1995.

Her first space mission was STS-87 on Columbia as the flight engineer and primary robotic arm operator, making her the first Indian woman to go to space. After STS-87, she was assigned to technical positions in the astronaut office, focusing on the ISS. 

Her second flight was on STS-107 as a mission specialist. Several streets, universities, and institutions have been named or renamed in her honor including:

  • The fourteenth contracted Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft was named the S.S. Kalpana Chawla
  • The Prime Minister of India renamed the MetSat-1 satellite the Kalpana-1
  • 74th Street in the “Little India” of Queens, NYC was renamed “Kalpana Chawla Way”
  • The Kalpana Chawla Award to recognize young women scientists
  • NASA has dedicated a supercomputer to Chawla
  • The Kalpana Chawla ISU Scholarship Fund to support Indian women’s participation in international space education 
  • The Kalpana Chawla Planetarium
  • On 1 April 2022, the ÑuSat 24 or “Kalpana”, COSPAR 2022-033X was launched into space as part of the Satellogic Aleph-1 constellation.
Kalpana Chawla

Michael P. Anderson, Mission Specialist

Anderson was a US Air Force lieutenant colonel and NASA astronaut. After graduating from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s in physics and astronomy in 1981, he became a second lieutenant in the Air Force, eventually becoming an aircraft commander and instructor pilot.

He had logged more than 3,000 hours of flight time when he was selected for astronaut training in December 1994. He began his year of training and evaluation in March 1995 and was qualified for flight crew assignment as a mission specialist. 

He was initially assigned technical duties in the Flight Support Branch until 1998 when he flew on STS-89 on Endeavour for the eighth Shuttle-to-Mir Space Station docking mission which delivered over 9,000 pounds of scientific equipment, logistical hardware, and water as well as swapped out astronaut Andy Thomas for David Wolf. For STS107, he served as the payload commander and lieutenant colonel in charge of science experiments.

In addition to the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, he received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and NASA Space Flight Medal posthumously. Like the others, several streets, schools, parks, and memorials are named in honor of him. 

Creighton University, his alma mater, named the green space in front of the Science Center after him as well as established a Physics Department statue and scholarship in his name. Twin larger-than-life statues by Dorthy Fowler of Anderson kneeling with his helmet in one hand and dove in the other are found in Spokane and at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, which also launched an aerospace program in his honor. Anderson is honored in an outdoor mural in Plattsburg. In 2003 he was inducted into the International Forest of Friendship, in Atchison, KS.

Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist

Laurel Clark (née Salton) was a medical doctor, Navy captain, and NASA astronaut. Through various training and positions within the Navy, she became a Navy Undersea Medical Officer, a Diving Medical Officer, a Radiation Health Officer, a Submarine Medical Officer, and a Flight Surgeon. 

Selected as a NASA astronaut in April 1996, Clark reported for her two years of training and evaluation in August 1996. She worked in the Astronaut Office Payloads/ Habitability Branch from July 1997 to August 2000.

STS-107 was her first flight assignment. Her bioscience experiments included gardening space. Her husband, NASA flight surgeon Dr. Jonathan Clark was part of the official NASA panel that prepared the report on the disaster. 

In addition to the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, she received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and NASA Space Flight Medal posthumously. 

Like the others, many public places are named in her honor including:

  • The Laurel Salton Clark Memorial Fountain in Racine, Wisconsin
  • The Laurel B. Clark and David M. Brown Aerospace Medicine Academic Center, located at the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute
  • Clark Auditorium at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center which displays uniforms, training manuals, and personal items that belonged to her

Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist

Ramon was a colonel and fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force with over 3,000 of hours of flying experience and was the first Israeli astronaut. After breaking his hand, he served in the electronic warfare unit. 

In 1997, he was selected as a Payload Specialist for NASA and designated to train as a prime for a mission with a payload that included a multispectral camera for recording desert aerosol (dust).

He trained from 1998 to 2003 for the STS-107 mission. While personally nonreligious, he opted to represent all Jews and Israelis during his time in orbit and performed traditional observance, making him the first spaceflight participant to request kosher food and mark the Sabbath. 

Upon the request of the American Society for Yad Vashem and due to his mother and grandmother being survivors of Auschwitz, he took a pencil sketch, Moon Landscape, drawn by Petr Ginz, a 16-year-old who was murdered in Auschwitz as well as other Holocaust and Jewish memorial items including a microfiche copy of the Torah and a miniature Torah scroll from the Holocaust.

At 48, he was the oldest member of the crew. Ramon is the only foreign recipient of the United States Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He also received the IDF Chief of Staff Medal of Appreciation and NASA Space Flight Medal posthumously. 

Ramon has multiple public places, schools, airports, conferences, centers, parks, and streets named after him around the world including in Israel, Canada, and the United States.

11 astronauts, test pilots, and other personnel have been killed during training or tests

Valentin Bondarenko

On March 23, 1961, Valentin Bondarenko became the first space-related fatality during a 15-day experiment in a low-pressure chamber designed to simulate conditions of space flight, when an accident caused a fire. 

He was a Soviet fighter pilot selected in 1960 for cosmonaut training, the youngest member among the first 20. His death and membership in the cosmonaut corps were concealed by the Soviet Union until 1980. A crater on the far side of the moon is named after him.

Theodore Freeman

Theodore Freeman was the first astronaut to die in the U.S. space program on October 31, 1964. He was an American aeronautical engineer, U.S. Air Force officer, and test pilot who was selected in the third group of NASA astronauts in 1963. 

While piloting a NASA-modified T-38 jet (the world’s first and most produced supersonic trainer) during training a goose struck the port-side air intake, causing the engine to flame out as he was on approach to land. Realizing he might he military housing, he banked away and ejected nearly horizontally. 

His parachute did not deploy in time and he crashed. Multiple roads and libraries were named after him as well as a crater on the far side of the moon and one of the four “Astronaut Islands” in Long Beach Harbor. 

There is a plaque commemorating him at the Lewes, Delaware terminal of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry.

Elliot See and Charles Bassett

Elliot See and Charles Bassett died in a plane crash caused by bad weather on February 28, 1966, while they were flying to training for their Gemini 9 mission. 

Elliot See was an American engineer, naval aviator, and test pilot who was selected in NASA’s second group of astronauts in 1962 and would have been the prime command pilot for Gemini 9. Bassett was an electrical engineer and US Air Force pilot who was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1963 and assigned to Gemini 9.

Both are memorialized on the Space Mirror Memorial; The Astronaut Monument; and the Fallen Astronaut memorial plaque, which was placed on the Moon during the Apollo 15 mission.

Virgil "Gus" Grisson, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee

On January 27th, 1967, Virgil “Gus” Grisson, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee died in an electrical fire during a “plugs-out” test for their Apollo 1 mission. Grissom was an engineer, US Air Force pilot, and member of the NASA Mercury 7 and Apollo 1 crews. 

White was an aeronautical engineer, US Air Force officer, test pilot, one of the second group of astronauts, and a member of the Gemini4 and Apollo 1 crews. Chaffee was a naval officer, aviator, and aeronautical engineer who was selected as part of the NASA Astronaut Group 3 in 1963. 

He served as capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for Gemini 3 and 4 missions before receiving his first spaceflight assignment in 1966 as the third-ranking pilot on Apollo 1. They were all posthumously awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Grissom had already received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978, but Chaffee and White received it posthumously. Grissom and White were inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame, National Aviation Hall of Fame, and U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. 

There is a life-size statue of Chaffee outside the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum (his hometown). The other “Astronaut Islands” in Long Beach Harbor were named after them.

Clifton C. Williams

On October 5, 1967, Apollo astronaut Clifton C. Williams died in a training jet crash. Williams was a naval aviator, test pilot, mechanical engineer, major in the Marines, and a member of NASA’s third group of astronauts although he never went to space. 

He served as backup pilot for the Gemini 10 mission and was selected to be the Lunar Module Pilot for an Apollo mission to the Moon that Pete Conrad would command. While flying from Cape Canaveral back to Houston, a mechanical failure jammed the controls on his T-38 jet trainer, causing him to lose control. 

He did eject, but crashed. The Apollo 12 mission patch had four stars on it– one for each of the astronauts that flew the mission and one for Williams who should have flown on it. Alan Bean (the astronaut who took over Williams’ position as Lunar Module Pilot for the Conrad Apollo mission) placed Williams’ naval aviator wings and silver astronaut pin to rest on the moon. His name appears on NASA’s Space Mirror Memorial.

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.

On December 8th, 1967, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., a  US Air Force officer, a Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) astronaut, and the first African American astronaut, died during a training jet crash. In 1967, he completed Air Force Test Pilot School and was selected by the USAF as an astronaut in the MOL program. 

While performing as an instructor pilot, the trainee flared too late on a glide technique, crashing the plane. While the trainee ejected successfully, Lawrence’s seat ejected sideways, killing him in the crash. 

His name is inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial and the 13th Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft was named in his honor. Tavares Strachan’s satellite sculpture ENOCH was dedicated to Lawrence. An asteroid was also named in his honor, as part of a group of asteroids named after 27 pioneering African American, Hispanic, and Native American astronauts.

richard lawrence with f104

Sergei Vozovikov

On July 11, 1993, Sergei Vozovikov from Soviet Air Force Cosmonaut Training Group 11 drowned during water recovery training. Not much more is known about him.

Michael Alsbury

On October 31, 2014, Michael Alsbury died when the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise spaceplane disintegrated and crashed. A flying enthusiast since childhood, the aeronautical engineer joined Scaled Composites as a project engineer and pilot. 

He served as copilot to Mark Stucky on the first powered flight for the craft in April 2013.  At the time of his death had 1800 flight hours, with 1600 of them as with Scaled Composites. During his ninth flight of the aircraft, it broke up in-flight and crashed into the Mojave Desert. Alsbury was unable to exit the aircraft in time. 

Episode 5 of BBC One’s Human Universe was dedicated to Alsbury and his name was added to the Space Mirror Memorial.


Space exploration is a noble endeavor that helps us better understand our neighborhood and the universe as a whole. Human exploration means protecting bodies that were meant to live here on Earth while in the vacuum of space or the rigors of launch and re-entry. 

Despite our best efforts, accidents have occurred, especially for those early astronauts when we were still figuring out technology and procedures. These brave astronauts gave their lives pursuing space exploration and doing what they loved, whether on official missions at the time of their death or not. 

We remember and honor their hard work and sacrifice.

Sarah H.

Sarah Hoffschwelle is a freelance writer who covers a combination of topics including astronomy, general science and STEM, self-development, art, and societal commentary. In the past, Sarah worked in educational nonprofits providing free-choice learning experiences for audiences ages 2-99. As a lifelong space nerd, she loves sharing the universe with others through her words. She currently writes on Medium at and authors self-help and children’s books.

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