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Johnson Reintroduces Apollo 1 Memorial Legislation as NASA Honors the Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jan-2017
Updated: 27-Jan-2017 02:57 PM

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed the first Apollo crew -- Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.  NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) held special tributes to the Apollo 1 crew yesterday and today as part of NASA's annual Day of Remembrance activities, which honor the Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger and space shuttle Columbia crews and other fallen astronauts.  On Tuesday, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot will lay a wreath at Arlington Cemetery near memorials to the Challenger and Columbia crews, but there is no memorial there for Apollo 1.  Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) is reintroducing legislation today to remedy that situation.

On January 27, 1967, the United States suffered its first space tragedy when Grissom, White, and Chaffee died of asphyxiation after fire broke out in their Apollo Command Module during a test prior to a planned February 21 launch.  The capsule was filled with 100 percent oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure. The cause of the fire is thought to have been a spark from an electrical wire although the investigation could not conclusively identify the ignition source.   The capsule had been designed for the hatch to swing inward.  With the pressure inside the capsule greater than that outside, it was impossible for the crew to open it quickly and with fire spreading explosively in 100 percent oxygen, there was little time.  Many changes were made to the design of the Apollo capsule and to test procedures afterwards.


Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.  Photo credit: NASA

Tributes were paid at the two KSC events to the Apollo 1 crew and to the support personnel who were on the Launch Pad 34 gantry just outside the spacecraft who tried to rescue them.  Among the speakers were legendary astronauts Mike Collins (Gemini 10, Apollo 11) and Tom Stafford (Gemini 6, Gemini 9, Apollo 10, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) and Chaffee's daughter, Sheryl Chaffee, who recently retired after her own career at KSC.

Collins spoke at yesterday's ceremony, which was dedicated to all the astronauts honored at the Astronaut Memorial Foundation's Space Mirror, and Stafford spoke today at the opening of an exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex dedicated to the Apollo 1 crew.   Both men knew Grissom, White and Chaffee quite well from the astronaut corps and in some cases from much earlier friendships (Collins and White were students at West Point together, for example).  Stafford was selected in the second group of astronauts in 1962 and Collins in the third group in 1963.   Grissom was one of the original "Mercury 7 astronauts" selected in 1959.  White joined the astronaut corps in 1962 and Chaffee in 1963 along with Collins.

Collins and Stafford both stressed that although their friends and colleagues lost their lives, the lessons learned from the Apollo 1 tragedy made the Apollo spacecraft safer and led to the success of the Apollo program overall.  If the design deficiencies of the Apollo spacecraft had not been discovered on the ground, such a fire could have occurred while a crew was in space and NASA might never have learned why, leading to a greater disruption in the space program.  Collins said:  "Without Apollo 1 and the lessons learned from it in all probability such a fire would have taken place later, in flight, and not only the crew, but the entire spacecraft, would have been lost. NASA, with no machinery to examine could only guess at the causes and how to prevent still another occurrence. Yes, Apollo 1 did cause three deaths, but I believe it saved more than three later."   Stafford echoed those sentiments.

Sheryl Chaffee movingly recounted what it was like as an 8-year old learning of her father's death and how it impacted her life and led to having her own 33-year career at KSC.  But she also explained how she felt the sacrifices of the Apollo 1 crew were not adequately acknowledged by NASA for many years.  In the days before January 28,1987, the 1-year anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger tragedy, she said she noticed that someone had placed flowers in the lobby of the headquarters building in their memory, but there were none to honor the Apollo 1 crew who had lost their lives almost exactly 20 years earlier.  "I felt no one remembered.  So I took that into my own hands.  I ordered flowers in honor of Apollo 1 and had them placed in the headquarters lobby next to the Challenger flowers. At that moment it became my mission to make sure we never forget the Apollo 1 crew and all our other fallen astronauts."


Sheryl Chaffee. daughter of Apollo 1 astronaut Roger Chaffee, speaking at NASA Kennedy Space Center Day of Remembrance event, January 26, 2017.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson is also trying to ensure that the Apollo 1 crew is not forgotten.  Today she is reintroducing a bill from the last Congress to create a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery for Apollo 1 similar to those for the Challenger and Columbia crews.  Grissom and Chaffee are buried at Arlington; White is buried at West Point.

In a press release, Johnson said that although they were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, "it is surprising that we do not have a memorial to honor the lives of the crew of Apollo 1 as was done for the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews.  This bill would redress that unfortunate omission."

The bill is identical to last year's legislation, H.R. 6147, according to a Johnson spokeswoman.  It would direct the Secretary of the Army to construct a memorial marker to the Apollo 1 crew at an "appropriate place" in the cemetery and allocate $500,000 of money appropriated to the Army for operations and maintenance in FY2017 for that purpose.  It also would allow the Administrator of NASA to accept donations for the memorial and transfer the money to the Army.  The Army oversees Arlington Cemetery.

Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986, killing all aboard:  NASA astronauts Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Ron McNair; Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis from Hughes Space and Communications; and Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe.  An O-ring in one of the shuttle's two solid rocket boosters failed due to unusually low temperatures at the launch site.


Space Shuttle Challenger memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.  Photo credit:  Arlington National Cemetery website.

Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its descent from orbit on February 1, 2003 after a 16-day science mission, killing all aboard: NASA astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown,  Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Blair Salton Clark; and  Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon of the Israeli Air Force.  Foam falling from the shuttle's External Tank during launch had punctured a hole in Columbia's wing, allowing the superheated gases encountered during atmospheric reentry to enter and deform the wing.  Aerodynamic forces tore the shuttle apart.

 
Space Shuttle Columbia memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.  Photo credit:  Arlington National Cemetery website.


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