A few weeks ago, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.
We will never forget that glorious day, Sunday, July 20, 1969, when 38-year-old astronaut Neil Armstrong landed the spaceship Eagle on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility at 1:18 Pacific Daylight Time. Five hours later, he emerged from the Eagle and walked on the moon to become the first human to set foot there.
Not all of America’s space ventures have been successes, however. Three proved to be disastrous, resulting in the deaths of all 17 aboard and the destruction of the three spacecraft.
These were the Jan. 27, 1967 deaths of astronauts Vigil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee who suffocated when their Apollo I spaceship caught fire during a routine ground test, the Jan. 28, 1986 deaths of seven astronauts, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, who lost their lives when their spaceship Challenger caught fire and exploded one minute following takeoff, and the Feb. 1, 2003 spaceship Columbia disaster which killed seven astronauts when it caught fire, exploded and fell to earth 16 minutes before it was to land at Cape Canaveral, Florida, following a 16-day scientific mission in space.
I will always remember that terrible Columbia disaster 16-and-a-half years ago because it had Fallon links and I had participated in the coverage of this tragedy for the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard, which was then published six days a week except Sundays and I was its owner and publisher.
The events leading up to the Columbia catastrophe unfolded early in the morning of Feb. 1, 2003. When I arrived at the newspaper office about 7 a.m. to plan our coverage, story and photo selections for the following day’s paper. An hour or so later, our Associated Press machine rang three bells that indicated a story of major importance was about to be transmitted. Shortly, the story arrived, informing us and thousands of AP clients around the world that the Columbia, while re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, had exploded in mid-air somewhere over the northern United States only 16 minutes before it was scheduled to land at Cape Canaveral, Florida, following its 16-day voyage into space.
It was later learned that the disaster had occurred when the Columbia was 231,000 feet above the Northern California coastline traveling at 23 times the speed of sound when it caught fire because heat-resistant tiles covering the left wing’s engine became damaged or were missing, causing the heat to enter the wing and, in a few minutes while the Columbia was heading south to Florida, it was blown apart.
The debris fell to the ground in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, and the remains of the crew and the Columbia were discovered in more than 2,000 locations. Making the tragedy even worse, two pilots aboard a search helicopter were killed in a crash while looking for the debris.
It wasn’t long before an employee of a plant a few miles north of Fallon telephoned our newspaper, informing me that he had seen the flaming Columbia streaking through the skies of northern Churchill County. I raced there, interviewed him about what he had seen and took a photo of the man pointing to where he had observed the Columbia in flames.
When I returned to the newspaper, developed the photograph and wrote my story, I received another call, this time from a local friend who told me that one of the seven deceased Columbia crewmembers had spent a tour of duty at the Navy Strike and Air Warfare Center, now called the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center, which is located at NAS Fallon. That Columbia crewman was Navy Capt. David Brown, MD, a flight surgeon and seasoned jet fighter pilot who, while serving aboard NAS Fallon in the late 1990s, had lived across the road from retired Lt. Commander Chuck Neefe and his family in a rural county area southwest of Fallon.
I drove to the Neefes’ house and interviewed Chuck and his wife, Yumi, who told me that they had been close friends of Capt. Brown during his NAS Fallon tour. The Neefes said they and Brown were frequent guests at each others’ homes for barbecues and other social events and that Brown, who owned a one-engine Piper “Super Cub” airplane which he kept at Fallon Municipal Airport, had often flown their son to scenic and historical sites in Northern Nevada. “Dave could even land his little plane on dirt roads,” Chuck told me that day 16 years ago before I headed back to the newspaper to write about my visit with the Neefes and their fond memories of David Brown.
I spoke with the Neefes a few days ago, and once again listened to their praises of Brown. “We often loaned each other tools and Yumi and I served as ‘dog sitters’ for Dave’s Labrador when he was out of town on Navy assignments. He also fixed our son’s bicycle several times. Dave had his own bicycle and often rode it to the Fallon air base,” added Chuck, who spent 28 years in the Navy as an enlisted man and officer on tours including Vietnam where he won the Purple Heart.
“We have missed Dave terribly over the past years. He was a wonderful friend and neighbor. Dave sent our family an invitation to attend the Columbia landing at Cape Canaveral. Sadly, that landing never occurred,” Yumi told me last week.
When recalling the spaceship’s landing on the moon and its recent 50th anniversary, we also should pause and reflect upon the deaths of the 17 astronauts who lost their lives in the Apollo l, Challenger and Columbia disasters. And I am also going to think about the Columbia’s Capt. David Brown who had served at NAS Fallon and left behind many Fallon and Churchill County friends, neighbors and co-workers.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.