This week marks a somber period in NASA history: Seventeen men and women who had devoted their lives to space exploration made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.
Each year, NASA honors the fallen astronauts, as well as test pilots before them and their families, in a ceremony in front of the Space Mirror at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex as the Day of Remembrance, this year on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016.
Nearly a half century ago, tragedy struck NASA’s astronaut program for the first time.
On Jan. 27, 1967, Three astronauts lost their lives in a fire during a test for the Apollo 1 mission.
On the Space Coast, their memory and legacy remains strong to this day.
On Wednesday, 49 years after the Apollo 1 tragedy, people gathered before a large video screen, inside this year due to rough weather outside, and remembered the victims.
Being so close to the sacred ground, no matter inside or out, means so much to the families of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee.
"It's important that we pause today to remember the crew that paved our way to the exploration of space," Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana told the crowd of 100.
The fire broke out during a rehearsal for the mission at Launch Complex 34 on Jan. 27, 1967.
Grissom, White and Chaffee were killed.
Flights were suspended for nearly two years while the investigation took place. In the end, it was deemed an electrical fire ignited in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the cabin.
Several members of Grissom's family lined the front row, including wife, Betty, who has made it back to the ceremony year after year.
Chaffee's widow, Martha, says it was her husband's and fellow crew mates' sacrifice that propelled the United States to the moon just two years later.
"I think they stood on their shoulders, and got to the moon,” Martha Chaffee said.
"They did set it up to go to the moon, and beyond," echoed Grissom's granddaughter-in-law Geri Grissom.
A candle was lit in the astronauts' memory. Mini flashlights were held in recognition of their sacrifice.
The ceremony ended at 6:31 p.m., the moment the fire struck nearly half a century ago.
On Jan. 28, 1986 — 30 years ago — the seven crew members of space shuttle Challenger were killed when the orbiter exploded soon after takeoff. On that clear, cold morning, a seal on one of the solid rocket boosters failed during liftoff. The booster detached, and the external tank broke apart, destroying the shuttle 73 seconds into flight.
A special Day of Remembrance ceremony took place under the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex's space shuttle Atlantis on a rainy Thursday morning, where a permanent memorial is installed, dedicated to the shuttle astronauts who have died in the name of space exploration.
Families and loved ones of the lost astronauts laid a wreath at the foot of the Space Mirror Memorial and placed flowers on the railing. The names of the fallen were read aloud in front of a crowd of some 500 family members, guests and patrons at the complex.
"The Challenger crew were wonderful, wonderful people. Wonderful human beings. Much like all of you here today," said Barbara Morgan, who was teacher Christa McAuliffe's backup. McAuliffe was the first educator selected to go into orbit.
The Forever Remembered memorial has personal items from the seven killed in the Challenger tragedy, and even includes the recovered left side body panel from the orbiter.
"It was so difficult to just think of that beloved crew and how they died, without reflecting on how they lived and to share their story," said June Scobee Rogers, widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee.
"Even though the accidents were very public, our grief was very private," daughter Kathie Scobee said.
Jon McBride was set to command the next shuttle mission and watched from the Kennedy Space Center as Challenger took off.
"We were kind of standing there, waiting for this liftoff," McBride said. "When it lifted off, we were just as happy as everybody else in the world. And all of a sudden, a minute and 11 seconds later, your whole life changes.
"You could have heard a pin drop there in that mission control center as we tried to recover from that horrible, horrible thing."
Along with McAuliffe, astronauts Ellison S. Onizuka, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Michael J. Smith, Scobee and Ron McNair also died in the Challenger disaster. The cold weather was determined to be a factor in the failure of the seal.
“I join all Americans in honoring the legacy of the Challenger crew members who gave their lives for the greater good of our nation," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement Tuesday. "The Challenger Seven were eager to explore the universe and discover the unknown in an act of service to all Americans. They were courageous individuals who inspired us and led by example as they carried America toward the future. To this day, the Challenger crew reminds us that we Americans are a resilient people who have always risen above tragedy by uniting and forging ahead.
“As Florida continues to play a role in 21st century space exploration, the sacrifices made on January 28, 1986 will never be forgotten.”
Tragedy struck the shuttle program 17 years later, when Columbia's crew of seven died during re-entry, just 16 minutes from landing at KSC. The orbiter disintegrated Feb. 1, 2003, over Texas. Investigators discovered that a piece of foam that struck the external tank during liftoff had opened a hole in one of the orbiter's wings, allowing hot gases to burn and break up the shuttle.
David M. Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon were killed.
"Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand," said President George W. Bush, addressing the nation after the Columbia disaster. "Our journey into space will go on."