The Apollo 1 Crew

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Apollo 1 Crew

Space flight is dangerous. Astronauts are sitting on gigantic tubes packed with explosive materials. Spacecraft move dangerously fast, making a collision inevitably fatal. Spacecraft fly through a deadly, inhospitable environment of vacuum, radiation, and extreme cold. By contrast, the heat generated by re-entry into Earth's atmosphere will burn an improperly protected spacecraft to cinders, as we've unfortunately witnessed during the final, tragic flight of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. The Challenger launch disaster of 1986 was another major catastrophe. But neither mission led to the first US astronaut deaths: that distinction belongs to Apollo 1.

Apollo 1 was to be the first three-man US space flight that would test the launching system for the planned lunar missions. Sadly, the Apollo 1 crew perished on January 27, 1967 while performing a test in their capsule. Let's take a moment to think about the Apollo 1 crew.

Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Command Pilot

Grissom was a part of the Mercury 7 team, the original US astronauts who trained for space flight. He was the second US astronaut to fly in a space capsule, which was called Liberty Bell 7. Ironically, Grissom had a close brush with death during this mission when his capsule hatch opened prematurely upon reentry, causing it to sink into the ocean and nearly taking Grissom with it. Apollo 1 would have been his third mission in space. His second was aboard Gemini 3 with John Young. Grissom was the first US astronaut to fly more than one mission in space.

Edward H. White II, Senior Pilot

White was the pilot for Gemini 4, part of the first series of missions with multiple astronauts. He was also on the backup crew for Gemini 7 and he would have been command pilot for Gemini 10. However, he did not complete that mission as he was reassigned to the Apollo program. White was the first US astronaut to perform a spacewalk, which occurred during the Gemini 4 mission.

Roger B. Chaffee, Pilot

Chaffee was a rookie, never having flown in space. Apollo 1 would have been his first mission; he was the lunar module pilot. Chaffee was cited for serving during Cuban Missile Crisis, although his actual role was not made public.

Sadly, these three men, who were space flight pioneers, died during a training session aboard the Apollo 1 capsule. The cause of their accident was determined to be a spark in the capsule's wiring, causing a fire that spread quickly as the capsule's atmosphere was pure oxygen. The astronauts reported the fire in their capsule, but they were unable to escape and died less than 20 seconds later after their report. Despite the terrible burns on their body, the cause of death was determined to be smoke inhalation.

Although their deaths were a national tragedy and made some people question the wisdom of sending humans into space, two positive things did happen following their accident:

1) Numerous safety improvements were made to the Apollo capsule, support systems, and the spacesuits worn by the astronauts. The capsule's air mixture was changed to an oxygen-nitrogen mixture, which would slow down any potential fires, and the capsule's hatch was made easier to open in case of emergency.
2) The Apollo program continued, leading to several successful lunar missions and setting the stage for further successful space programs.

The Apollo 1 accident has been eclipsed in recent years by the Challenger and Columbia disasters, which happened more recently and claimed a greater number of lives. Brave men and women died on all three missions and these accidents serve to remind us of the dangers of space travel. However, let us not forget the ultimate sacrifice of Grissom, White, and Chaffee and Apollo 1, which served as a painful, but ultimately valuable stepping stone in the history of manned space flight.

More about this author: Mark Dykeman

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