The first disaster, unlike the others to come, did not take place hundreds or thousands of miles away, high above the earth. It took place right on the ground, in front of the very people whose work and dreams also went up in smoke – with, and this was the unbearable part, the lives of the three astronauts set to make the first manned flight of the Apollo program. Their goal, ultimately, was to land on the moon, but on January 27, 1967, they died in a fire on a Cape Kennedy launch pad just 525 feet off the ground. Chief among the mourners of Lt. Col. Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Lt. Col. Edward H. White II, and Lt. Commander Roger B. Chaffee, was a man who, although claiming to watch their every movement with pride, bridled at having to pay the bill. Yet President Lyndon B. Johnson, learning of their deaths at a White House party, was genuinely stricken – and left, at once, to be briefed on their terrible deaths, as they sat inside their command capsule, routinely rehearsing what, in February, would have been their ascent above the earth.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space….And none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” – John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961 Washington, D.C.
“If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything does happen to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” – Gus Grissom
It might have been a National Aeronautics and Space Administration project, but it was run, still, like a military mission: hurry up and wait. So at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee arrived at Cape Kennedy Launch Pad 34 to rehearse the launch of what was, in a month, to be the first man mission of the Apollo I space program. Seated in their command module, they would practice a countdown identical to the real thing, but for the loading of fuel into the rockets. At 2:50, the countdown began. Minor delays slowed the process; the rehearsal was already running late. Then the crew noticed a sour smell inside the battened-down oxygen-filled capsule. A “hold” was put on the countdown, and a special crew arrived to assess Apollo I‘s air quality. By the time they arrived, the smell had gone. But it returned an hour later, and again, the countdown was temporarily halted. The smell, however, had disappeared once more. Still, for the next few hours, the countdown stopped and started, this detail checked, that malfunction fixed. Someone suggested they call off the run-through; officials said no, time was too precious. Finally, at 6:31 p.m., the countdown was on again, set to begin in ten minutes. The astronauts, in the spacecraft for more than five hours, prepared to switch Apollo 1 from its launch power, to its own battery-operated source.
The electrical wiring inside the 10-foot 7-inch tall by 12 foot 10 inch wide cone, like so much of the 210 cubic feet of the module (the size, say, inside a VW van), was cramped, primitive, and decidedly make-shift. It was probably an electrical wire below Grissom’s seat then, that having lost its insulation, sparked. Nylon netting caught fire. From the netting, the fire traveled to a foam pad, then to a bundle of wires; from the wires, to an explosion. Fire now blocked the men from their only means of escape, the side hatch. Grissom, likewise, was prevented by the flames from throwing the lever to vent the module’s high-pressure oxygen atmosphere. Within seconds, the fire melted the soldered joints of the oxygen supply lines. Voices were heard:
Chaffee: We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!
Someone else, unidentified, called out “Bad fire!’, called out, “Let’s get out –Open ‘er up!”, called out “We’re burning up!”
The fire, having burned all of fourteen seconds, caused the outer hull of the command module’s to crack open. Thick black poisonous smoke poured out.
The funeral for the three astronauts was held January 31, 1967. Grissom and Chaffee, accompanied by President Johnson, were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. White, a West Point graduate, was interred at the U.S. Military Academy. The First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, attended. Whether LBJ wrote these two letters, to the parents of Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, before or after sitting next to them at their sons’ funerals, is unknown.
To the Chaffees – who, either too shocked with grief or anger, ignored him – Johnson condoled:
The nation’s sadness and the world’s compassion are a measure of the loss you have suffered. Yet they are no less a mark of the greatness of the cause to which your son was committed, and the size of his achievements in advancing it. To expand our knowledge of the heavens is to seek a richer life on earth for our children, and generations of children to come. To succeed in that great enterprise we must have men of superior talents, supreme courage and surpassing dedication. Such men are rare, but Roger was among them. He will always be among us, warm in our hearts. He has done more than stretch our hand into space. He has moved us closer to the fulfillment of an ancient dream, and in doing that he has moved all men closer together. Mrs. Johnson and I mourn for you as we pray that God’s blessing will swell with you. May you find strength and comfort in the pride that America shares with you.
Writing to parents of Gus Grissom, however, Johnson was personally more engaged:
Men of your son’s utter dedication to country and cause are rare. The loss of such a man is humanity’s loss. On each of the happy occasions when I met with Gus, I was impressed by the strength of his spirit and his cool confidence in the success of our space program. He was a leader who shared his strength and faith with all who knew him. By his courage, skill and dedication, he has guaranteed future generations a knowledge of the universe that will enrich their lives on earth. Your sacrifice is beyond measure. But I hope you can take some comfort from your knowledge that your pride can be without limit. Mrs. Johnson and I mourn with you as we pray for God’s blessing. Millions share our debt to you for giving Gus to man, and inspiration to mankind.
Grissom and Chaffee, as befit their status as aviation pioneers, were buried less than 100 feet from America’s first air crash victim, Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, who was killed in a test flight of a Wright brothers’ airplane.
As for Johnson, despite the push-and pull of budgetary problems, he stood by the Apollo program’s mission of landing a man on the moon. He wished to be remembered, in space as elsewhere, as a president who had made his mark. Here, at least, he succeeded: NASA’s “Manned Spacecraft Center” was renamed “The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center” in 1973.
The recent months have been filled with NASA milestones and anniversaries. In addition to the Apollo I tragedy 50 years ago, January 28 marked the 31st anniversary of the Challenger disaster. January 16th was the 14th anniversary of the launch of the ill-fated Columbia mission, which crashed on its final approach to landing, killing all seven astronauts on board on February 1, 2003. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, died on December 8, 2016, and Eugene Cernan, the last man to depart the moon’s surface on Apollo 17, passed away on January 16, 2017.
ROGER B. CHAFFEE. 1935 — 1967. American astronaut; killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a training exercise and pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission.
VIRGIL “GUS” GRISSOM. 1926 – 1967. American astronaut, and the second to fly in space. He was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a training exercise and pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission.
EDWARD “ED” HIGGINS WHITE II. 1930 — 1967. American astronaut, and the first American to to walk in space. White died alongside Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 1 explosion.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON. 1908 – 1973. The 36th President of the United States.
Typed Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, quarto, The White House, Washington, DC, January 31, 1967. To Mr. and Mrs. Donald L. Chaffee in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Typed Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, quarto, The White House, Washington, DC, January 31, 1967. To Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Grissom in Mitchell, Indiana.