Thursday, January 27, 2005

27 January 1967

38 years ago today, a Friday, was a busy day at Cape Kennedy’s Launch Complex 34. By 8 a.m. that morning, a cast of almost 1,000 had assembled to support a “plugs-out” launch simulation on Apollo 204. Apollo 204, better known to us as “Apollo 1” was to be the first manned Apollo mission, and was scheduled to fly on 21 February 1967. After lunch, the flight crew: Virgil I “Gus” Grissom (Lt.-Col., USAF), another Air Force light Colonel, Edward White, and Navy Lt. Commander Roger Chaffee, suited up and headed for Pad 34.

The oldest of these men, Grissom, 41 years old, had already flown in space twice, as well as flying 100 combat missions in the Korean War, garnering an Air Medal with cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Grissom had been told, privately, that he was going to be the first American to walk on the Moon. The Command Module Pilot, Colonel White, age 37, was, during the Gemini 4 mission (3 June 1965), the first American to walk in space. The third crew-member, Lieutenant-Commander Chaffee, age 32, had never flown in space. All were married, with children.

Shortly after 1 p.m., the astronauts entered the capsule, and the technicians sealed the hatch, then locked the booster cover cap in place. None then knew that the sealing of the hatch marked the closing of another door, for three of the finest men America ever produced had entered their pyre and tomb, and would not leave the capsule alive.

The test proceeded slowly and with numerous glitches and delays, which was not unusual, because this Apollo capsule, Spacecraft 012, had already earned a reputation as a lemon. The test went on all afternoon, and on into the evening.

About 6:30 p.m., one of the astronauts shouted over the radio circuit: “there is a fire in here.” Technicians frantically rushing to the capsule area to assist were driven back by flames so hot that they had ruptured the capsule. Grissom, White and Chaffee never had a chance to escape, caught behind a double-hatch that took over five minutes to open, bathed in highly flammable pure oxygen, strapped to their crew couches in bulky space-suits. The astronauts died by inhalation of toxic gasses.

I grew up in a space and military town, Huntsville, Alabama, and I still remember, at age 5, learning of the deaths of the astronauts. The electrical fire which asphyxiated the crew was a blow not only to the families of the crew, and to all who knew these men, but to the whole nation, already reeling from Vietnam. Col. Grissom and Cmdr. Chaffee were buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Col. White at West Point. A long ago tragedy perhaps, and subsumed to some degree now in so many others. But if you’ve a moment in the course of your day, you might remember these men.

1 comment:

The B.... said...

In a day and time in which no one has any respect for anyone, especially not for those who serve our country (and serve for the betterment of our world)so bravely, your commemoration of these men hits the spot.

It's so tragic that in 2005 if this were to occur, half of Americans would have something disparaging to say and the other half would forget the honor of men such as these and have some equally disparaging barb to throw back at them.

We need to seriously thing about taking the United out of the U.S. Memories such as these are no longer possible.