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Top Ten Astronauts Who Died Before Liftoff

Updated on November 8, 2017
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Tom Lohr is an avid fan of science, space travel and exploration. He has spent 13 months at the science station at the South Pole.

Being an astronaut is a dangerous occupation. Particularly in the early days of space exploration, there was scant information on how humans would react to space travel, and rockets were prone to failure and explosion. Those who made it into the US space program were subjected to intense training and testing, and then lucky if they were chosen for a mission and even luckier if they survived. Of those brave souls who did choose to devote their life to the exploration of space, several were killed before being afforded the chance to make their mark on history.

1. Theodore Freeman

Chosen in October of 1963 to be one of the fourteen men that comprised the third group of NASA astronauts, Theodore Freeman had every reason to believe that he had a bright future in the expanding astronaut corps. Yet even before he was chosen for a mission, he became the first US astronaut killed. On October 31, 1964, Freeman was returning from a trip in a T-38 training jet. Just short of the runway at Ellington Field near Houston, his aircraft struck a goose. The impact of the bird caused a sudden loss of power. The T-38 plummeted from an already low altitude and while it is unclear if Freeman ejected or not, his parachute would not have had time to deploy. His body was found a short distance from the aircraft.

Theodore Freeman
Theodore Freeman | Source

2 & 3. Elliot See & Charles Bassett

While the Apollo program receives much of the glory and accolades of the US space program, the Gemini missions were the backbone of the efforts to get to the moon. The Gemini 9 mission had three main objectives: dock with a target vehicle, perform a space walk, and carry out seven minor experiments. The prime crew chosen for this ambitious flight were Eliot See and Charles Bassett. See was a member of the second group of selected astronauts and Bassett the third group. On February 28, 1966 they were flying a T-38 jet from Ellington Field in Texas to the Gemini capsule manufacturer in St Louis for some simulation time. Upon approach to Lambert Field, bad weather and visibility caused See to overshoot the runway. Opting to keep low and circle around for another approach, his jet clipped one of the nearby buildings causing the aircraft to crash, killing both astronauts. Their deaths resulted in NASA's first mission flown with a backup instead of prime crew.

Elliot See & Charles Bassett
Elliot See & Charles Bassett | Source

4. Roger Chaffee

The Apollo 1 mission was to be primarily a test of the new Apollo spacecraft systems. Roger Chaffee was chosen to be part of the three-person crew. After years of helping out on the ground with the Gemini missions, Chaffee was finally slated to rocket into space. He was in good company. His crew mates included Mercury and Gemini missions veteran Gus Grissom along with Ed White, the first American to walk in space. Chaffee was the only rookie assigned to the mission. On the evening of January 27, 1967 the crew was conducting a “plugs out” test of the spacecraft. The test was fraught with issues including sketchy communications with the blockhouse that conducted the tests. A short circuit caused a spark that quickly ignited the pure oxygen atmosphere in the capsule. The ensuing fire and smoke killed all three astronauts. The tragedy prompted numerous safety improvements in the Apollo command module.

Roger Chaffee
Roger Chaffee | Source

5. Clifton Williams

A member of the third group of astronauts selected, Williams served as backup commander for the Gemini 10 mission. He was finally selected as a prime crew member of Apollo 12, meaning he was headed to the moon. Williams' dad was dying of cancer, so on October 5, 1967, he climbed into a T-38 and jetted his way toward Mobile, Alabama to visit his ailing father. During the flight, near the Florida-Georgia border, his aircraft suffered a mechanical malfunction and placed him in a screaming dive. Williams ejected, but his aircraft was traveling too fast and he punched out too low for his parachute to properly deploy. His spot on the Apollo 12 mission was filled by Alan Bean. Had he not been killed, Williams would have been the fourth man on the moon.

Clifton Williams
Clifton Williams | Source

6. Robert Lawrence

While Guion Bluford is recognized as the first African-American to make it into space, he was not the first African-American astronaut. That honor belongs to Robert Lawrence. Lawrence was not part of a NASA group, but rather an Air Force program called the Mobile Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). The MOL would be launched with a modified Gemini capsule and an attached laboratory for a period of about a month. In reality, the MOL was to be used for reconnaissance, a nice word for spying.

After selection, Lawrence, already a flight instructor, continued to teach pilots in space related high speed landings utilizing the two-seat version of the F-104 fighter jet. It was during one of these landing at Edwards Air Force Base on December 8, 1967, with Lawrence in the backseat as instructor, that the jet was involved in a hard landing as the pilot flared the aircraft too late causing the landing gear to collapse. The front seat pilot ejected and suffered major injuries. Lawrence's backseat ejected immediately after, however the jet had already rolled onto its side and he was ejected sideways and killed. The MOL project was cancelled not long after as spy satellites became a better alternative. Many of the MOL astronauts transferred to NASA and flew on space shuttle missions. Had he lived, given his credentials, Lawrence would have also made it into space via the shuttle program.

Robert Lawrence
Robert Lawrence | Source

7. Michael Alsbury

Not all space flights are controlled by NASA or the Air Force. The 21st century is the era of commercial spaceflight. Virgin Galactic, a company controlled by adventurous mogul Richard Branson, is leading the charge for space tourism and hoping to offer spaceflight to anyone willing to plunk down the dinero, the mucho dinero, for a ride. The flights will take place in vehicles dubbed by Virgin Galactic as “VSS” vehicles. The first, VSS Enterprise, had flown several powered and unpowered flights within the earth's atmosphere after release from its carrier vehicle, an airplane called the “White Knight.” During a powered test fight over the Mojave Desert on October 31, 2014, Alsbury unlocked a tail boom device too early into the flight causing the vehicle's tail to fail during transonic flight and break apart. Alsbury's crew mate was able to eject safely, but Alsbury was found with his body still strapped into his seat. Despite the loss of its only spacecraft, Virgin Galactic vows to press on with commercial spaceflight, and the replacement for VSS Enterprise is already being tested.

Michael Alsbury
Michael Alsbury | Source

8. Edward Givens

Givens is another astronaut who saw a lot of NASA action in a ground support role. He was a member of astronaut group selection 5 and was likely to see some flight time in the Apollo program. But on the evening of June 5, 1967, he attended a meeting of a secretive club of aviators known as the Quiet Birdmen at a hotel near Houston. After the meeting, he was giving two attendees a ride home in his Volkswagen Beetle when he apparently missed a sharp turn in the road. His flimsy Beetle landed in a deep ditch, killing Givens and injuring his two passengers.

Edward Givens
Edward Givens | Source

9. Stephen Thorne

Selected as an astronaut candidate for the space shuttle program in 1985, Thorne was in candidate training when he was killed in a plane crash on May 24, 1986. He was performing stunts in an aircraft designed for such maneuvers (an Aerotek Pitts S2A). An electrical short distracted the pilot and it went into an inverted tailspin and recovered too low to avert a crash near Santa Fe, Texas.

Stephen Thorne
Stephen Thorne | Source

10. Patricia Robertson

Selected as an astronaut candidate in 1998, Robertson was a doctor with aerospace medicine training and had practiced at Johnson Space Center. She was awaiting assignment to a mission when the aircraft, a Gideon Whitman Tailwind, in which she was instructing a pilot in touch-and-go landings, crashed as it ascended after brief touch down on May 22, 2001 in Manvel, Texas. The aircraft rolled to the right, and the wing touched the ground and cartwheeled. Robertson died as a result of severe burns suffered in the crash.

Patricia Robertson
Patricia Robertson | Source

Works Cited

“Theodore Freeman.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Aug. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Freeman.

Dunbar, Brian. “Remembering NASA Astronauts Elliot See and Charles Bassett.” NASA, NASA, 26 Feb. 2016, www.nasa.gov/feature/remembering-nasa-astronauts-elliot-see-and-charles-bassett.

“Remembering the Life and Legacy of Roger Chaffee on His 80th Birthday.” AmericaSpace, www.americaspace.com/2015/02/15/remembering-the-life-and-legacy-of-roger-chaffee-on-his-80th-birthday/.

“Clifton Williams.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Aug. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifton_Williams.

Oberg, James. “The Unsung Astronaut.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 23 Feb. 2005, www.nbcnews.com/id/7018497/#.WbRLx63MzVo.

Neuman, Scott. “Co-Pilot Killed In SpaceShipTwo Crash Was Experienced And Steady.” NPR, NPR, 2 Nov. 2014, www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/11/02/360873395/co-pilot-killed-in-spaceshiptwo-crash-was-experienced-and-steady.

“Edward Givens.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Aug. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Givens.

AP. “Stunt Plane Crashes, Killing 2 From NASA.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 May 1986, www.nytimes.com/1986/05/26/us/around-the-nation-stunt-plane-crashes-killing-2-from-nasa.html?mcubz=1.

Dunbar, Brian. “Astronaut Patricia Hilliard Robertson Dies.” NASA, NASA, www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/news/releases/1999_2001/j01-056.html.

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    • Tom Lohr profile image
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      Tom Lohr 2 months ago from Santa Fe, NM

      In those days they flew them everywhere. There were mostly fighter/test pilots anyway. The T-38s did take more than their share of lives though.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 2 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Fantastic list and a unique idea for a hub. Tragic. Those T-38s were brutal. Sharing. Keep up the good work.