I hadn’t realized this until I saw it in the Examiner, but today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo I fire that took the lives of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The disaster almost derailed the Apollo program, and it took the better part of two years before NASA could make the changes necessary to transform the catastrophe into an improved system that would successfully land men on the moon in 1969:
Exactly 40 years later, the three Apollo astronauts who were killed in that flash fire were remembered Saturday for paving the way for later astronauts to be able to travel to the moon. The deaths of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee forced NASA to take pause in its space race with the Soviet Union and make design and safety changes that were critical to the agency’s later successes.
“I can assure you if we had not had that fire and rebuilt the command module … we could not have done the Apollo program successfully,” said retired astronaut John Young, who flew in Gemini 3 with Grissom in 1965. “So we owe a lot to Gus, and Rog and Ed. They made it possible for the rest of us to do the almost impossible.”
The memorial service at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex marked the start of a solemn week for NASA – Sunday is the 21st anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger accident, and Thursday makes four years since the space shuttle Columbia disaster.
Chaffee’s widow, Martha, and White’s son, Edward III, along with NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier, laid a wreath at the base of the Space Mirror Memorial, a tall granite-finished wall engraved with the names of the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia astronauts and seven other astronauts killed in accidents.
My father, the Admiral Emeritus, worked on the space program for almost 30 years and met the men on a few occasions. The people at NASA and the contracting companies (where my father worked) took the Apollo disaster very personally. People working on the space program had a strong sense of mission and of being part of history, and the loss of these brave leaders had a terrible impact on everyone involved.
Congress grilled NASA and the astronauts in the program after the disaster, and they put a lot of pressure on the program to end the mission. In the end, Congress relented and all of the agencies and companies involved made significant changes to the equipment and procedures, changes which put Neil Armstrong on the moon and made space flight almost routine for another 17 years, until the Challenger disaster in 1986 almost exactly 19 years after Apollo I.
Not many people know much about the three men, and the most famous — Grissom — is mostly known from his portrayal in The Right Stuff, which made him look petty and somewhat cowardly. A much better representation of Grissom can be found in Tom Hanks’ miniseries, From The Earth To The Moon, which correctly paints Grissom as a tough-minded, hard-driven perfectionist who put everything he had into the program. Grissom was the first man to get flight status in all three NASA space missions (Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo) at the time of the fire, and he pushed NASA and the contractors hard to build the equipment properly. Petty and weak men did not make it into the space program, at least not as astronauts, and Grissom had made two journeys into space already by the time he died.
There were many reasons the Apollo I accident should not have happened, but Grissom, White, and Chaffee knew that the job was dangerous and did it anyway. They should rightly be remembered as American heroes.