Sometimes they do
die in threes.
When Wubbo Ockels died of a
rare kidney cancer on May 18, no one could have predicted—at least,
none of us did—that two fellow crew members from his one and only space
flight would follow him in death within three months: commander Hank
Hartsfield on July 17 and pilot Steven Nagel on August 21.
you read anything conspiratorial into this, bear in mind that while
Nagel coincidentally died of cancer, Hartsfield's death was attributed
to complications from back surgery. (Wait a minute—isn't your back . . .
where your kidneys
are . . . ?)
Ockels wasn't the first
Dutchman to fly in space—that distinction belongs to naturalized
American Lodewijk van den Berg—although he was the first Dutch citizen.
An accomplished physicist, he was selected by the European Space Agency
(ESA) in 1978 as one of three European payload specialists (basically,
guys who conduct scientific experiments) to train for Spacelab 1, a
joint mission of ESA and NASA.
After serving in backup and
communication roles for the first few Spacelabs, he finally made it to
the show in 1985 as part of the eight-member crew—still the largest ever
for a space shot from launch to landing—of the West German Spacelab D-1
mission, the first whose payload activities were directed from outside
the U.S., aboard the space shuttle Challenger
Two months later,
73 seconds into its next scheduled flight, Challenger
blew up, proving
that sometimes they die in sevens. New safety rules established that as
the maximum acceptable amount of carnage, costing Ockels a seat on
At least he lived long enough to be nominated
for Deadspin's 2014 Name of the Year tournament, although he was sent
packing in the first round by eventual winner Shamus Beaglehole. Perhaps
countryman Wubbo Velvis will one day boldly go where no Dutchman has
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