In the Wake of the Shuttle Tragedy, An Astronaut's Widow Recalls Nasa's First Disaster
When the space shuttle Challenger exploded, millions of people found themselves suddenly overwhelmed by sadness. For a handful of them, including Martha Chaffee Canfield, 46, there was the added and painful sensation of déjà vu. The Challenger disaster came 19 years and a day after her first husband, Roger Chaffee, and two fellow astronauts, Virgil (Gus) Grissom and Edward White, were killed aboard the Apollo 1 spacecraft when it caught fire on the launch pad during a routine training session.
For Martha, then 27, the following years were a time of grief, fear and a profound questioning of herself and her beliefs. She worried about how to console their children, Sheryl, then 8, and Stephen, 5, and how to rebuild her own life. One discovery, she says, was “that I was a lot stronger than I thought I was.”
In 1972 she and Pat White Davis and their children received an out-of-court settlement from the builders of the spacecraft for a reported total of $300,000. (In a separate out-of-court settlement, Betty Grissom and her children won $350,000.) In 1981 Martha’s second marriage, to real estate developer William Canfield, ended in divorce after 13 years. Today the petite, ebullient grandmother of three co-owns a travel agency in Houston, where she lives. She talked to correspondent Kent Demaret about her reaction to her husband’s death and offered advice to the families of the Challenger crew.
Nineteen sixty-seven was a very exciting time. Unlike Gus and Ed, Roger had never flown a mission. When he was named to be part of the first manned Apollo flight in February, the excitement was tremendous. The Christmas before was a very close time. We went to my family’s home in Oklahoma and Roger spent some real quality time with the kids, which meant a lot to me then and later. He knew that the flight was coming and that he was going to be involved with time-demanding things afterward, so being with the kids was a priority.
Roger didn’t talk about the possibility of anything ever happening, and I didn’t think about it. We had seen death with members of his Navy fighter squadron, of course, and I used to get concerned about him flying at night off an aircraft carrier. But the confidence of pilots, particularly astronauts, is contagious. Also, we were young. Maybe when you get older you think more about that sort of thing. Roger did have his affairs in order just in case, but I don’t recall ever sitting down and discussing it.
The children and I were at our home near Houston when it happened. I remember it vividly. You put it in the back of your mind, but you never forget. It was around 7 o’clock in the evening. I had fed the children when some astronaut wives came to my house. I knew something was going on, but I thought, “It can’t be anything terrible,” because Roger wasn’t flying. He was just involved in tests and training. I had never even thought of the possibility that there might be some sort of accident while they were on the ground.
When NASA sent astronaut Mike Collins to our house a little later, I knew it was something terrible. I told him, “Mike, I think I know but I have to hear it.” He said they had been killed. He didn’t say exactly what happened. I found that out over the next couple of days through the news reports. Later on NASA sent me a full report of the investigation.
I knew I had to tell my children. By then the security people had arrived, and there were a lot of people at the house. I tried to explain to them that something had happened to their daddy, and he wouldn’t be coming home. That was the hardest. I don’t think they really knew what death was. I didn’t even use the word. It was too final for me at the time. The children cried because I was crying, and that night they slept in my bed.
It was a real long night. I don’t think I got much sleep, but when I did I had changed sides of the bed. I don’t know if I thought I was going to be closer to Roger by sleeping on his side, but it meant a lot to me at the time. Roger was buried on Jan. 31. After the funeral I slept with the flag that had been draped over his coffin. It was the last thing that was closest to him, and it was a comfort.
Everybody goes through a mourning period, and they do it at an individual pace. I was used to Roger being gone for weeks at a time so it was probably a full month before it really hit me that he was gone from this existence and I would not see him again. One of the first things that I felt was fright. I wasn’t in any financial turmoil. We had some immediate insurance and military benefits so I wasn’t worried about the mortgage company knocking at the door. NASA was a tremendous help and handled all the paperwork. It was more a worry about what direction my life was going to take. I had young children. I wondered what I was going to do, where I was going to go.
For a year I went through all sorts of processes. At first I was afraid of the unknown. My life had changed dramatically overnight; I guess I was scared that sort of thing would happen again. Then I went through a period thinking that no other tragedy could happen to me because it already had. It’s a false padding of your feelings, but it happens. The one thing that really got to me was that Roger never made it into space. It was something he wanted to do so much.
There were comforts too. For example, people appreciated that Roger and the others were killed going into new frontiers. I got such moving letters from schoolchildren. My No. 1 help had to be prayer. I prayed out loud, and it calmed me and reinforced things for me. I prayed for strength and for direction. I remember somebody telling me that death was like a little child going to sleep on the couch and his parent going and getting him and putting him in his own bed. I thought it was such a beautiful transition, the Father getting Roger and putting him in his right place. That helped me an awful lot.
So did my family and friends. They just had a sense of knowing when I was down. Sometimes I would be sobbing uncontrollably, and they would help me get those feelings out, and other times they’d distract me. Betty Grissom and Pat White were going through their process. We visited each other on occasion. Knowing that we were going through some of the same emotions was reassuring.
People came by constantly for the first month but then it starts tapering off. That’s when you stand on your own feet. It’s hard. Some people might turn to drinking or withdraw from life altogether. One of the dangers for me was that I had a hard time sleeping. I would listen to music practically all night.
I knew that somehow I had to find out who I was. All of a sudden I was not Mrs. Roger Chaffee, I was Martha Chaffee, and I had to find my identity. I was afraid to go out with other men. When you’ve been married and you try to get back into a social life it’s difficult. You know you need to see people, but you have to push yourself.
Since I didn’t graduate from college I didn’t feel like I had any professional capabilities. I stayed home with the kids and became involved in garden clubs, PTA, Brownies. If you wanted somebody to volunteer for something, I was it. A major turning point came for me when a friend offered me a job at a travel agency. I was already fairly independent. I had to do things for the family when Roger wasn’t there. But all the major decisions were made by the two of us. All of a sudden I had to make them alone. I just felt lost for a while.
I didn’t know how much the children had been affected by Roger’s death until a lot later. I guess I was feeling they were too young to comprehend what was going on. They weren’t. Unfortunately with my hurt I couldn’t see theirs. There was a time I got really angry at Roger for dying. Then I would feel ashamed. It wasn’t his fault. I realize now those thoughts are natural. The children were going through something similar, but we didn’t mention it. We were all keeping up a brave front for one another. We didn’t go for professional help, but it might have been better if we had. If I had the knowledge I have now I would have been more open to their feelings. Even though they were young, their memories of their father were embedded in their lives. That and the love is always there.
I’m always glad to have January over with. It’s still a bad month for me. Every Jan. 27, the whole day is captured by memories. The hurt came out even more this year. I had found some comfort when I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if they could get that shuttle launched today? It would be commemorative.” I couldn’t believe the next day. It brought all the hurt back. My son was at my place when I got home that night, and he was there every day for a week. My daughter also called often. We comforted each other and talked about the past and what the survivors must be going through. My children were especially concerned about the crew’s children witnessing the disaster.
I went to the memorial services at NASA for the Challenger astronauts. I don’t know what sort of advice I could give the survivors. I don’t think you ever complete the mourning process because you never forget. You go through this guilt thing, “Why didn’t we say we loved each other as the last thing we said? Why didn’t I make his favorite meal the last time he asked?” Those are natural feelings. They’re part of a transition everyone has to make.
I guess patience comes to mind. I’d like for them to know that all will happen in its rightful time. They will never forget, but after a while they won’t feel as badly as they do now. Patience is important, and a lot of love from a lot of people.