The end of January / beginning of February is a time of pause and reflection for the American space programme and NASA. A span of five days, spread across a 36-year period, mark the three greatest tragedies of US human space flight, and so this period is always marked as a time of remembrance.
I’ve marked these three events – the Apollo 1 fire of January 27th, 1967, the Challenger disaster of January 28th, 1986 and the loss of the Columbia on February 1st, 2003 – in past Space Sunday updates. However, January 27th, 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, which claimed the lives of Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee in just 16 seconds. To mark it, and the start of NASA’s period of remembrance, the US space agency unveiled a new Apollo 1 tribute in its visitor complex at the Apollo/Saturn V Centre.
The Apollo 1 astronauts remembered at the Space Mirror Memorial, Kennedy Space Centre’s visitor centre. Credit: NASA
Grissom, White (the first American to walk in space during the Gemini 4 mission in 1965), and rookie Chaffee were participating in a “plugs out” test of the Apollo Command module intended to determine whether the vehicle was fit to fly at a time when many in NASA – Grissom included – felt it was not (Grissom had once famously hung a lemon in the Command Module simulator during training to signify his dissatisfaction with the state of the vehicle’s development).
It should have been a routine launch pad test of the vehicle the crew were due to fly in the first crewed test of Apollo in the run-up to a lunar landing. Instead, a spark from faulty wiring combusted the oxygen-rich atmosphere, causing a flash fire. This, aided by the many flammable materials used in the construction of the vehicle caused the air pressure inside the vehicle to rapidly rise, sealing the cabin’s inward opening hatch so that the crew could not open it themselves.
The deaths of these three men ultimately made Apollo – and the US space programme itself – far safer for those going into orbit. Flammable materials were all but eliminated from designs wherever possible; the atmosphere used within vehicles was altered so as not to be oxygen-rich, reducing the risk of fires rapidly building up and spreading; exit hatches were all changed so they would open outward, and the mechanisms for opening them either from within or without a vehicles were designed to be as simple and direct as possible.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the fire, NASA has placed the most significant part of the Apollo 1 vehicle – the hatch – on public display, with the full blessings of the surviving members of the astronaut’s families. It is a belated addition to similar exhibits of both the Challenger and Columbia accidents were placed on public display over 18 months ago in order to more fully commemorate those incidents.
All three disasters are commemorated at the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Centre. However, while both Challenger and Columbia are also marked by memorials at America’s Arlington National Cemetery, no similar memorial currently exists for Apollo 1 (although Grissom and Caffee are interred there – White is interred at the West Point Cemetery). So, as a further mark of the 50th anniversary of the fire, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) has re-introduced a bill to Congress to have an Apollo 1 memorial established at Arlington.
The Challenger and Columbia memorials, Arlington National Cemetery. Credit: Arlington National Cemetery.
Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia, together with a loss of life which occurred during the Soviet manned space programme, serve as a reminder to all of us that space exploration is still a dangerous undertaking, despite all of the “shit sleeve” images we see of people working aboard the International Space Station. But then, all acts of expanding the human frontier carry with them inherent risks and the potential for loss of life.
This doesn’t mean we should shirk such activities or retreat from them; the rewards are simply too great, not only in terms of our potential to learn and grow and ensure our continuance as a species, but also to out ability to mature as a species and reach beyond the petty nationalisms and narrow-minded thinking which plague so much of what happens in the world today.
Remembering; Apollo 1 (top): Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee; STS-51l (Challenger – left): Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Ronald McNair, Michael J. Smith and Ellison Onizuka; STS-107 (Columbia, right): David M. Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. McCool, and Ilan Ramon. All images credit: NASA – click for full size.
NASA’s official Day of Remembrance will be held on Tuesday, January 31st, 2017. With it comes the opportunity to not only look back to the sad events of January 27th, 2967, January 28th, 1986 and February 1st, 2003, but also to look forward to what might yet be achieved for all of human kind. Which is why I’m once again quoting Francis “Dick” Scobee, Commander of Challenger mission STS-51L, lost on that cold January morning in 1986.
Words: Francis Scobee via June Rodgers (formerly June Scobee). image: NASA