Fifty years ago today, the American manned space program’s almost unbelievable run of luck ran out. It came to an end on a mission that never even left the ground.
On Jan. 27, 1967, during what was supposed to be a routine countdown rehearsal (as if the word “routine” should ever be applied to space travel), a flash fire in the Apollo 1 capsule claimed the lives of astronauts Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom and Ed White. The fire, later attributed to defective wiring, instantly turned the high-oxygen atmosphere of the spacecraft into an inferno that killed the three men in seconds.
They were the first fatalities in a program that had successfully sent Americans into space and brought them home alive and well since Alan Shepard’s brief Freedom 7 up-and-back flight in 1961.
It hadn’t all been good luck, of course. It was also good science, hard work, grueling training, political urgency, patriotic inspiration, Cold War competition, and the sense of adventure and discovery that has compelled human beings since long before Norse mariners set out in wooden boats across the icy North Atlantic.
And it hadn’t all been smooth sailing, so to speak. Grissom had been forced to scramble out of his Mercury capsule after splashdown in 1961 when a prematurely blown hatch flooded it with seawater. Future U.S. Sen. John Glenn (who later joked about sitting atop a million parts built by low bidders on government contracts) was thought to be in danger of incineration on reentry after the first Mercury orbital flight, due to what was mistakenly suspected to be a loose heat shield. Gemini 8, commanded by a civilian pilot named Neil Armstrong, went into a sudden end-over-end tumble on a docking maneuver in 1966.
But Apollo 1 was a sobering reminder of how many things could go wrong — and somehow, so far, hadn’t.
The 1967 disaster put the lunar program, only three years away from the unofficial deadline President Kennedy had set for a moon landing at the start of his short presidency, in jeopardy. But Apollo was redesigned, and the ultimate success of NASA’s manned lunar program — including the legendary near-disaster of Apollo 13 — remains humankind’s most daring foray into space to date.
Yet the Apollo 1 tragedy was somehow overshadowed by the later (and more universally witnessed) Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters, archives from which are already on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.
That changes today, as the families of the lost Apollo crew dedicate a new exhibit — the hatch from the command module.
“I’m just so pleased,” said Chaffee’s widow Martha. “… It’s time that they show the three who died in the fire appreciation for the work that they did.”
Grissom’s son Scott said the tribute is “way, way long overdue. But we’re excited about it.”
Neil Armstrong’s triumphant “giant leap for mankind” two years later had a human cost. This is a long-delayed recognition of three who paid it.