“If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” – Gus Grissom
“A good man’s life is never quite ended; something of it always remains to touch and illuminate other lives.” – Edward Higgins White
“Probably the greatest thing a man can say to himself, or have as his philosophy when he has to tackle a tough job, or make a big decision, is the first eight words of the Scout Oath: On my honor, I will do my best…” – Roger B. Chaffee
Fifty years ago today, tragedy struck on launch pad 34 at Cape Kennedy during a preflight, launch-rehearsal test for what would later be designated Apollo I. The mission was to be the first manned flight of Apollo, and was scheduled to launch Feb. 21, 1967. Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee lost their lives when a fire swept through the command module and they were unable to escape. The fire and the deaths of the three astronauts put the entire lunar landing program on hold.
Today, 50 years and many NASA missions later, the world still remembers the courage of these three men.
Lt. Col. Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom had been part of the U.S. manned space program since it began in 1959, having been selected as one of NASA’s Original Seven Mercury Astronauts. His second space flight on Gemini III earned him the distinction of being the first man to fly in space twice. His hard work, drive, persistence and skills as a top notch test pilot and engineer had landed him the title of commander for the first Apollo flight. Grissom served in both WWII and Korea, where he completed one hundred combat missions with the 334th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. Gus was never comfortable speaking with the press. In fact, he went to great lengths to avoid them whenever possible. On one occasion, he went so far as to disguise himself in a floppy straw hat and dark glasses in order to slip by reporters. Some members of the press crew responded by tagging him with the titles “Gloomy Gus” and “The Great Stone Face”.
Grissom joined NASA in 1959, after almost being disqualified because of his allergies. His response when he learned of this was that his allergies would not be a problem because “there won’t be any ragweed pollen in space”. Grissom was very much a family man, a private man, and when he died he left behind a wife, Betty, and two sons, Scott and Mark.
Lt. Col. Edward H. White was born to fly. His father was a career Air Force officer who began his career by flying U.S. Army balloons and ended it with the rank of Major General. White’s first experience at the controls of an aircraft came when he was twelve and his father allowed him to take the controls of an old T-6 … after that, nothing else would do. After graduating from West Point, White followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the U.S. Air Force, and was stationed in Germany.
In 1957, after reading an article about the role of future astronauts, White knew where he wanted to go, and the desire to become an astronaut determined the paths he would follow. Though he was not one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, White did pilot flights for weightlessness training for John Glenn and Deke Slayton, as well as the chimps that were sent up prior to the astronauts. In 1962, NASA once again begin recruiting for their upcoming Gemini program, and in September of that year, Edward White finally realized his dream of becoming an astronaut. On June 3rd, 1965, White became the first American to walk in space. On re-entering the spacecraft after his walk, he said “I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.” When White died on this day in 1967, he left behind his wife, Patricia, a son, Edward, and a daughter, Bonnie.
Roger B. Chaffee was the youngest and newest of the three astronauts, having only been in the program for a year. Chaffee began his flight career as a barnstorming pilot. In 1954 Chaffee’s career as a pilot was almost ended by a failed eye test, a requirement for the Naval ROTC flight training program in which he was enrolled, but was given a second chance that he passed. Joining the U.S. Navy in 1957, Chaffee became one of the youngest pilots to fly A3D twin-engine jet photo reconnaissance planes. In the early 1960s during the Cold War, and particularly the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chaffee flew more than 80 missions over Cuba. In 1963 he was one of 14 new astronauts chosen for work on Project Gemini.
Chaffee had an artistic streak, designing his own home and doing all his own home improvements. He even did all his own landscaping. When his wife once asked him to build a tiny water fountain in the backyard, she wound up with a carefully engineered waterfall crafted from tons of gravel and hours of backbreaking work. The cascading waterfall was complimented by the lighting Roger had installed around their pool. Additionally, he wired their stereo system so that music could be heard in any room of the house. Chaffee left behind his wife Martha, and two children, Sheryl and Steven.
The tragedy delayed the manned space program, but it would eventually proceed with the Apollo program, and later the Space Shuttle Program and the International Space Station (ISS). Three courageous men gave their lives in the interest of science, in the interest of space exploration, 50 years ago today, and we remember and honour them. Thank you.
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