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Invention & Technology MagazineSpring 1998    Volume 13, Issue 4
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“Fire in the cockpit!”


The Apollo lunar-landing program was the greatest triumph of America’s post-World War II can-do technological spirit. In a series of increasingly ambitious missions, NASA’s engineers and astronauts made the monumental achievement of landing men on the moon seem almost routine. Even when disaster struck Apollo 13, Mission Control managed to bring its astronauts home safely. The only fatalities in the entire program occurred in its very first mission. Three astronauts died not while undertaking dangerous maneuvers thousands of miles from earth but while performing a routine prelaunch test on the pad at Cape Canaveral.

The date was January 27, 1967, at 18:31:04.7 Eastern Standard Time.

CHAFFEE: “Hey!” [Scuffling noise.]

GRISSOM: “Fire!”

CHAFFEE: “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.”

WHITE: “Fire in the cockpit!” [Furious movement.]

CHAFFEE: “We’ve got a bad fire! Let’s get out! We’re burning up! We’re on fire! Get us out of here!”

[Screaming. Silence.]

It was over in less than 15 seconds. The astronauts—Virgil I. (“Gus”) Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee—were dead. The crew that was scheduled to pilot the first Apollo mission into space had been conducting a simulated launch countdown when the fire began. In retrospect the potential for disaster seems plain, and the events leading up to that fateful day make the astronauts’ deaths that much more haunting. But the disaster may well have saved the American space program. “We may have never gotten [to the moon] if it hadn’t been for Apollo 1. We uncovered a whole barrel of snakes that would have given us problems later on,” said Deke Slayton, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, who was the director of flight-crew operations for Apollo.

ON MAY 25, 1961, PRESIdent John F. Kennedy pledged that “before this decade is out,” the United States would place a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. It was the height of the Cold War, and Kennedy’s vow was meant to challenge our national pride at a time when the Soviet Union appeared to hold a firm, if early, lead in the space race. Over the next five years America began pulling ahead, launching nearly twice as many missions as the Soviets with its Mercury and Gemini programs. But ever since Sputnik in 1957, the Soviets had always managed to do things first: the first manned flight, the first woman in space, the first flight with more than one crew member, the first space walk. America’s only hope to come in first, it seemed, was to shoot for the moon. So the fledgling Apollo program, which was to fulfill Kennedy’s mandate, proceeded full speed ahead.

Apollo was a massive $24 billion effort. At its peak its contractors and facilities spanned the entire country, employing about 400,000 people and 20,000 firms. On Long Island the Grumman Corporation was developing the lunar module. The three stages of the Saturn V rocket that would propel the Apollo astronauts to the moon were being built by Boeing in Seattle and by North American Aviation (later North American Rockwell) and Douglas Aircraft (later McDonnellDouglas) in Southern California. A launch complex of unprecedented size was erected at Florida’s Cape Canaveral (later Cape Kennedy), while the famed Mission Control Center was constructed in Houston. Hundreds of contracts were let out for everything from space suits to a giant tractor used for transporting the rockets to the launch pad. The pace was frenetic, and the smallest change to one subsystem could have a ripple effect throughout the program. But America had a deadline.

For a while it didn’t seem that President Kennedy’s target could be met. In July 1963 The New York Times carried a headline proclaiming LUNAR PROGRAM IN CRISIS. The impetus for this declaration was the recent resignation of D. Brainerd Holmes, who had headed the Office of Manned Space Flight at NASA. Holmes, a highly respected engineer, had lost a power struggle with James Webb, the top man at NASA, over budget allocations and reporting responsibilities for the various components of the Apollo program. The first order of business for his replacement, George Mueller, was to conduct a realistic analysis of the status of the program. The results were not promising. The study concluded that the odds of reaching the moon by the end of the decade were only about 1 in 10 and that a lunar landing could not be attempted “with acceptable risk” until late 1971. Mueller used this dire prediction to make a radical change in the way things were done at NASA.

NASA had been testing the individual components of its spacecraft on a piecemeal basis. Everything had to work on its own before it became part of the whole. This conservative philosophy was the hallmark of the oldschool German rocket engineers at NASA, who relied on repetitive, incremental test methods to compensate for the unpredictable nature of their evolving science. So too plodded the aeronautical engineers who had come out of the flight-test field, where exhaustive ground testing in the cause of safety held sway over design expediency. But Mueller, a systems engineer from America’s ballistic-missile program, thought this cautious approach was gumming up the works. In late October 1963, a few weeks before Kennedy was assassinated, he issued an “all-up” testing mandate.

All-up testing meant that equipment had to be complete, checked out, and flight-ready when delivered to NASA, instead of requiring extensive assembly and adjustment at the Cape. Wherever possible, the various components and subsystems would be tested simultaneously under flight conditions. For example, the three stages of the Saturn rocket would first fly together instead of being tested separately beforehand. Despite the objections of staff members who thought that the Apollo spacecraft was far too complex for such a procedure, the all-up concept was put into practice. Mueller reasoned that the immense scope of the project and the interdependency of the various systems made it impossible to conduct enough repetitive testing to provide a statistically meaningful record of success. By testing different components together, each trial would yield more information. One initial skeptic was the famed rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, who thought the all-up concept “sounded reckless.” But he later admitted that “without all-up testing the first manned lunar landing could not have taken place as early as 1969.”

The pressure to hurry Apollo along was enormous. With antiwar protests, racial unrest, and budget trouble plaguing the country, LBJ needed a triumph.

Development of the command and service module (CSM) had been awarded to North American Aviation, whose work force was already stretched thin by its Saturn rocket contract. At first the CSM’s design effort was understaffed, and two years after receiving the contract, North American still did not have a workable design. Although the design team had expanded to some 4,000 engineers and technicians by 1964, delays and problems continued to plague development of the CSM, prompting a full-scale investigation by NASA in the fall of 1965. The subsequent report offered stinging criticism of North American and its subcontractors.

Although North American managed to deliver the first command module, designated 012, on schedule in August 1966, its relationship with NASA remained strained. Quality control was a major problem, as NASA engineers uncovered nearly 20,000 failures, errors, and omissions in CSM 012. The environmental control system had to be replaced twice. At a December 1966 press conference Joe Shea, the Apollo program manager, candidly conceded that while most of the problems were trivial, there were enough serious issues to make him apprehensive. “We hope to God there is no safety involved in the things that slip through,” he said. But Thomas Baron, a quality control inspector at North American, deemed CSM 012 “sloppy and unsafe,” while Rocco Petrone, the director of launch operations, branded it an unacceptable “bucket of bolts.” North American fired Baron for his candor, but the scheduled December 1966 launch date for the first manned Apollo mission (then known as Apollo 204) had to be postponed until February 1967.

On paper NASA had a “zero defects” policy regarding products delivered by its contractors. But in reality the Apollo program was fraught with oversights and expedients. The pressure to move the project along was enormous, and not simply because of Kennedy’s mandate. With the country wallowing in a sea of racial unrest, antiwar protests, and budget problems, President Lyndon B. Johnson looked to Apollo to boost the sagging popularity of his administration, and he let NASA officials know it. NASA also felt pressure from Congress, which had cut the space program’s 1967 budget by $800 million (out of about $5 billion). The quest for perfection was replaced by a policy of accepting products that were good enough to do the job.

The problems with CSM 012 gave the astronauts less opportunity to train for their mission, a shakedown flight that was scheduled to last up to two weeks. The flight simulator was supposed to mirror the production model of the CSM. But as the profusion of problems was being uncovered, engineers continued their design-on-the-fly process, making more than 600 changes to CSM 012. Modification of the simulator soon lagged far behind. After personally counting more than 100 significant errors in the simulator, Grissom hung a lemon over the hatch to illustrate his disgust. But despite his dissatisfaction with the simulator and the continued delays, he remained gung ho. Like Slayton, he was one of the original Mercury seven, with the old-school test-pilot mentality. According to Grissom, the Apollo 1 mission was “primarily concerned with checking out the spacecraft’s systems and seeing whether it is flyable and livable.” If it turned out not to be, Grissom would take his chances. In early January 1967 he told a group of reporters: “We’re 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.”

THOUGH IT WAS A CRITICAL step in readying Apollo 1 for flight, the test scheduled for January 26 and 27 was considered fairly routine. On launch pad 34, the much-modified CSM 012 now sat atop the Saturn IB rocket that was to carry it into space. This was to be a “plugs out” test, in which the control cables and umbilical cords between the spacecraft and the gantry would be disconnected at the end of a mock countdown, simulating conditions after launch. It was, in effect, a dress rehearsal. An unmanned version of the test was originally scheduled to be performed first, but in the spirit of Mueller’s “all-up” edict, NASA proceeded directly to simulated launch with the crew aboard.

Because the crew had performed the same checkout procedures many times in the simulator, and because the rocket was to be unfueled, the test was officially designated nonhazardous. Therefore the fire crews were on standby rather than maximum alert. Still, an atmosphere of uneasiness surrounded the test. The backup crew of Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham, and Donn Eisele had run through a similar six-hour countdown test the day before. Later Schirra attended a debriefing with Grissom and Joe Shea.

“I don’t know, Gus,” Schirra told Grissom, “there’s nothing wrong with this ship that I can point to, but it just makes me uncomfortable. Something about it doesn’t ring right.” In the language of test pilots, the last statement was a fairly strong condemnation of CSM 012. Schirra cautioned, “If you have any problem, even a communications problem, get out of the cabin until they’ve cleared it up.”

GETTING OUT would be no small task. The Mercury capsules had been equipped with a hatch that the occupant could blow open in an emergency. Unfortunately the hatch on Liberty Bell 7, Grissom’s Mercury capsule, had blown off accidentally when he splashed down in the Atlantic in July 1961. Fearing that an explosive hatch might do the same in space, NASA omitted it from the Gemini and Apollo capsules. But while the hatch on the Gemini capsule could be opened fairly easily, the three separate components of the Apollo hatch required at least 90 seconds to open under ideal conditions.

Schirra suggested that Shea join the Apollo 1 astronauts in the spacecraft during the test so that he could observe the problems firsthand. Shea agreed to do so but changed his mind when technicians couldn’t rig up a communications line for him to use in the capsule. With all the problems they had been experiencing, Grissom still wanted Shea to be there. He asked him to reconsider at breakfast the next day. “It’s really messy. We want you to fix it,” Grissom told Shea. But without a way to monitor communications, Shea just didn’t think it was worth it, and he again declined. Deke Slayton also considered getting into the spacecraft with Grissom but decided that he could keep an eye on things better on the ground. These decisions may have saved their lives, but they also haunted Shea and Slayton for years.

Grissom, White, and Chaffee began the plugs-out test of CSM 012 at 1:00 P.M. Things started off badly and went downhill from there. First the astronauts reported an acrid sour-milk smell emanating from the oxygen supply of the environmental control unit. The foul odor dissipated as the air was purged from the CSM and it was pressurized with pure oxygen at slightly more than atmospheric pressure. As the astronauts went through their prelaunch checkouts, the mock countdown was interrupted repeatedly because of communications problems. Static and feedback crackled over the channels, and a frustrated Grissom snapped, “How the hell can we get to the moon if we can’t even talk between two buildings?” Despite Schirra’s advice, the crew remained in the spacecraft as the test dragged on for hours.

At 4:00 P.M. the countdown was again halted while Mission Control technicians changed shifts. Over the next two hours the plugs began to be disconnected and the countdown proceeded to T minus 10 minutes to launch. Another communications failure interrupted the test at 6:20 P.M. Just under 11 minutes later Mission Control noticed a momentary power loss in the spacecraft’s electrical system. Seconds later the crew reported the fire. As the astronauts struggled in vain to open the hatch, the gantry personnel Donald Babbitt and James Cleaves rushed to their aid, followed by Jerry Hawkins, Steven Clemmons, Henry Rodgers, and L. D. Reece.

The fire raced through the capsule with lightning speed. Within 15 seconds the temperature had soared to more than 1,400°F and the pressure inside the sealed cabin had nearly doubled. The shell of the spacecraft ruptured, showering the gantry with a blast of heat, dense smoke, and molten debris, including pieces of Grissom’s space suit. The concussion threw Babbitt and Cleaves back against the gantry. Then three levels of the eight-story gantry were on fire, and attempts to reach the crew were thwarted by the oppressive heat and noxious, blinding smoke. NASA officials and launch technicians watched helplessly on their video monitors.

Though it was a critical step in readying Apollo 1 for flight, NASA considered the test scheduled for January 27 to be fairly routine.

Alternately advancing and retreating through the choking smoke, gantry personnel beat back the flames with fire extinguishers and made their way to the hatch. Working mostly by feel, they fumbled to remove the bolts from the three-layered hatch, searing their fingers. “You couldn’t see six inches from your face,” Gleaves recalled. “I had to run my hands around the capsule to locate the hole the size of a dime into which the tool had to be inserted.” Though they could only work for seconds at a time before running back across the gantry for fresh air, they managed to remove the two outer hatches.

The inner hatch, warped from the intense heat, barely budged. Five minutes and 27 seconds after the first report of fire, they finally pried the hatch, frame and all, about six inches open. A blast of turbid smoke and intense heat belched from the cabin, driving the rescuers back once more before they could peer inside. Finally Babbitt forced the distorted hatch into the spacecraft, then collapsed in exhaustion. Reece poked his head into the cockpit and shouted, “Is anyone there? Is anyone there?” He was certain that he had heard the astronauts call out for help when the hatch was opened, but now there was no response.

The interior of CSM 012 was a mass of molten plastic and charred, twisted metal, to which the astronauts’ space suits had been fused. It took more than seven hours to remove their bodies. Contrary to published news reports, the astronauts had not been incinerated in the fire. Grissom had some burns on his right leg, and Chaffee on his back, but neither was severe enough to be fatal. Instead the crew had been asphyxiated by the poisonous fumes that had flowed into their breathing tubes. Perhaps the crudest irony of the day was that the final item on the test schedule, which had been requested by Grissom, was a simulated emergency to see how fast the astronauts could escape the spacecraft. The emergency procedures they were to follow required Grissom to unstrap himself from his couch to assist White in opening the hatch while Chaffee remained in his seat and maintained communications. The position of the bodies and the audio and film records of the test indicated that despite the terror they faced, the astronauts followed these procedures to the letter.

With a hostile Congress scheduling hearings that would not only examine the accident but determine the future of the manned space program, NASA initiated a massive investigation into the Apollo 1 fire. Twenty-one committees were created to examine every system and subsystem in the spacecraft. The screw-by-screw dissection and autopsy of the remains of CSM 012 was the most exhaustive experience of the Apollo program. The investigators produced a 3,000-page report of their findings in only nine weeks.

The report was far from the whitewash that skeptical members of Congress had predicted a NASA-led investigation would produce. It leveled unabashed, scathing criticism at both NASA and North American, citing numerous “deficiencies… in Command Module design, workmanship, and quality control.” NASA technicians were chastised for installing additional combustibles in the spacecraft. North American was faulted for delivering CSM 012 with more than 100 “open items”—that is, flaws. Company officials were accused of “ignorance, sloth, and carelessness.” An appalling level of alcohol abuse was reported among the rank-and-file workers at the plant. By the time Congress convened its hearings in April 1967, the self-criticism in the NASA report had stolen much of its thunder.

The shell of the spacecraft ruptured, showering the gantry with heat, dense smoke, and molten debris, including pieces of Grissom’s space suit.

The exact origin of the fire was never determined with certainty, but the “most probable initiator” was an electrical short circuit in a cable bundle near the problematic environmental control unit. In a spacecraft that was found to have 10 times the allowable amount of combustible materials, and with a pure oxygen environment in which even so-called noncombustibles can burn, it didn’t take much of an ignition source to set the whole unit on fire.

The pure oxygen atmosphere and the existence of combustibles in the cabin had long been controversial among aerospace engineers, but until Apollo 1 NASA was firm in its resolve. The earth’s atmosphere is about 21 percent oxygen and 78 percent nitrogen. In space flight, to avoid putting a strain on the craft’s thin shell, the internal pressure is reduced to about one-third of that on earth. The partial pressure of oxygen in normal air under such conditions would be much too low to support life. In fact it takes only a moderate drop in the partial pressure of oxygen to affect brain activity.

In addition, the presence of nitrogen in the spacecraft presents a danger of its own. Astronauts exposed to a sudden change in pressure—whether due to an accident or malfunction or after donning space suits filled with low-pressure oxygen—could develop the condition known as the bends, in which nitrogen escapes from body tissues and forms gas bubbles in the bloodstream, blocking circulation. (Oxygen presents no such threat.) This illness, which was first noticed among sandhogs and is most often associated today with scuba-diving accidents, can cause neuralgic pain, difficulty in breathing, paralysis, or even death.

A pure oxygen atmosphere would provide sufficient oxygen even at the reduced pressure used in space and would purge nitrogen from the bloodstream to prevent the bends. But there was no consensus about the possible health effects of long-term exposure to pure oxygen. Soviet spacecraft had equipment that duplicated the fullpressure, two-gas environment found on earth, but they needed a thicker shell. Complex air locks were also required, and the cosmonauts had to purge the nitrogen from their bodies for hours before leaving the cabin for a space walk to protect against the bends. NASA thought that the complicated sensing and regulating system that such a scheme would require was too unreliable, and the additional tanks, piping, and controls as well as the heavier shell needed for a two-gas system would add too much weight to the spacecraft. Also, because a pure oxygen system could operate at one-third the pressure, leaks through any joints in the shell into the vacuum of space were less likely.

From NASA’s point of view, then, the case for using pure oxygen in space was overwhelming. For ground operations, the argument was less clear-cut. Indeed, the original design for the Mercury spacecraft had called for the cabin to be filled with normal air while on the launch pad. As it ascended into orbit, the air would be bled from the cabin and replaced with pure oxygen as the external atmosphere thinned. By the time it reached space, the craft would contain about two-thirds oxygen and only one-third nitrogen at a total pressure of approximately 5 psi, although the astronaut would breathe pure oxygen at the same pressure through his space suit at all times (unlike Apollo, whose astronauts would mostly breathe the cabin atmosphere). The primary reason for this arrangement was precisely to reduce the risk of an oxygen-rich fire on the ground. Fire in space was not considered to be as serious a problem, since scientists believed that with no gravity to make hot gases rise, the flames would smother themselves in their own combustion products. In any case, an astronaut could always vent the cabin into the vacuum of space to extinguish the flames.

AN ACCIDENT DURING A ground test in April 1960 changed NASA’s thinking. A McDonnell test pilot was about one hour into a test of the environmental control system when he fell unconscious and nearly died from oxygen depletion. Because of a difference in pressure, nitrogen had leaked into his space suit from the cabin, diluting the oxygen he was breathing. Unable to eliminate the problem reliably, NASA decided that a pure oxygen environment was the best option for Mercury—not only in space but on the ground as well.

This policy was questioned within the space-flight community. In 1964, for example, two separate scientists working for NASA warned of the hazards posed by pure oxygen, which can cause fires that are virtually inextinguishable. In February 1966 an editor of Science Journal, reviewing the proceedings of a conference held the previous fall, noted a general lack of attention to launch-pad safety and predicted, “The odds are that the first casualty in space will occur on the ground.” Yet a conversion to oxygennitrogen for ground use would have introduced complications of its own at a time when NASA already had plenty to worry about. Pure oxygen at all times remained official policy in the Gemini and Apollo programs.

The question of combustible materials was raised again when CSM 012 was delivered to NASA in August 1966. Joe Shea had reiterated the firesafety requirements for the spacecraft and asked North American to investigate the problem. Within six weeks North American documented the results of a “walk-through” inspection of CSM 012 and requested specific direction from NASA on addressing them. NASA responded in turn, but given the volume of concurrent design revisions in the works, compliance was never verified.

In October 1966 Shea received a letter from a high-ranking official at another Apollo program contractor, General Electric, expressing concern that NASA had developed a false sense of security because of “the ground and flight success history of Mercury and Gemini under a 100 percent oxygen environment.” The GE official warned that “the first fire in a spacecraft may well be fatal” and suggested that NASA investigate fire detection and extinguishing options. Similar concerns were raised by Dr. Charles Berry, the chief of NASA’s medical division, who warned that even if the level of oxygen was reduced to the bare minimum, the flammable materials in CSM 012 could be ignited by a routine short circuit.

Shea responded by asking the reliability, quality, and test division of NASA to review the “nonmetallic materials control program.” Nearly two months later the division chief, Bill Bland, indicated in a report to Shea that he had not been able to carry out the review as the result of “our usual press of business with more significant problems.” But Bland said that recently completed fire-hazard assessments for the command and lunar modules had concluded that “our inherent hazards from fire in the spacecraft are low.” Even if the review had been conducted, however, a long-standing practice of the astronauts themselves might have made the results moot.

Ever since Mercury, astronauts had customized their spacecraft with nylon Raschel netting and Velcro fasteners for storing pens, flight plans, personal effects, and other items to keep them from floating about the cabin in zero gravity. It was known that these materials were combustible, but a postfire investigation showed that they practically exploded like flash paper in a pure oxygen environment. “It was unbelievable. The stuff burned like you wouldn’t imagine,” reported Tom Markley, an assistant to Shea. The investigation also revealed that netting had been installed closer to the probable ignition source than the four-inch limit stipulated by NASA fire-safety requirements.

Another focus of the investigation was CSM 017, the second command module North American delivered to NASA. It had arrived two weeks before the fire and was scheduled for use in the first flight of the Saturn V rocket, which was eventually known as Apollo 4. CSM 017 had already passed a quality-control inspection, but now it would come under an intense scrutiny that would rival the postfire dissection of CSM 012. The inspectors found dozens of haphazardly routed and skinned wires, short circuits just waiting to happen. One by one the NASA management team came down to see the problems for themselves. Rocco Pétrone, the director of launch operations, cursed as he examined CSM 017. Joe Shea welled up in tears. Gen. Samuel Phillips, the overall Apollo program director who had led the investigation of North American two years earlier, stood in stunned silence. NASA inspectors eventually found a total of 1,407 errors in the spacecraft. CSM 017 would never fly a manned mission.

Investigators from NASA produced a 3,000-page report on the fire in only nine weeks. It was far from the whitewash that skeptics had predicted.

The need for a safer spacecraft was obvious, but there was no universal agreement on how to achieve that goal. Joe Shea opposed a complete overhaul, arguing that the revisions needed were fairly clear-cut. But the general sentiment within the NASA hierarchy was that a review of the entire design was necessary. Shea was soon kicked upstairs from his position as the head of the Apollo program to a behind-the-scenes job in Washington. A few months later he left NASA for good.

An additional casualty of the investigation was Harrison (“Stormy”) Storms, president of the space division at North American. Despite the problems being uncovered by the NASA investigation, Storms insisted that “there’s not a goddamn thing wrong with those spacecraft!” He dismissed the supposed flaws in the two CSMs as trivial and insisted that the blame for the tragedy lay with NASA’s decisions to use pure oxygen and a complicated, inward-opening escape hatch. His intransigent attitude was unacceptable to NASA, and North American, fearing the loss of the CSM contract, soon demoted him. That move paved the way for the eventual hiring of a nononsense engineer named John Healey to oversee production of the first revised version of the command module. This switch was perhaps the most decisive factor in North American’s recovery from the Apollo 1 disaster.

Among the changes adopted for the spacecraft were: a gas-operated, outward-opening hatch that could be operated in as little as seven seconds; flameproof coatings on wiring connections; metal shields on exposed wiring to keep the insulation from being scuffed off, which probably caused the fire; replacement of plastic devices with metal ones wherever possible; space suits and fabric surfaces made from Teflon-coated nonflammable Beta cloth, similar to fiberglass; replacement of soldered aluminum oxygen piping with stronger welded steel; and, perhaps most important, the use of a 60 percent oxygen, 40 percent nitrogen atmosphere in the cabin during ground tests. To ensure that the modifications were carried out correctly, NASA assigned a team of troubleshooters led by the astronaut Frank Borman to oversee operations at the North American manufacturing plant in California. In addition, Schirra, Cunningham, and Eisele, the crew for the next scheduled manned flight, roamed the plant floor, inspecting the production of their spacecraft, now designated CSM 101.

Shortly after CSM 101 arrived at Cape Kennedy, in May 1968, the quality-control inspectors reported that it contained “fewer discrepancies than … any spacecraft previously delivered” to NASA. That, along with the redesigned hatch and the abandonment of pure oxygen for ground tests, was the legacy of Apollo 1. Consider the thoughts of Walt Cunningham, who rode CSM 101 on the Apollo 7 mission. “The death of Gus Grissom’s crew at the Cape made it possible to land a man on the moon on schedule. Indeed, it may have saved America’s space program. So we cannot consider their deaths to have been in vain.”

GRISSOM WOULD HAVE been proud. Shortly before his death he had written an article for the World Book Encyclopedia about his involvement in the space program. In his words, “There will be risks, as there are in any experimental program, and sooner or later, inevitably, we’re going to run head on into the law of averages and lose somebody. I hope this never happens, and with NASA’s abiding insistence on safety, perhaps it never will, but if it does I hope the American people won’t feel it’s too high a price to pay for our space program. We flew with the knowledge that if something really went wrong up there, there wasn’t the slightest hope of rescue. … There have been times when all of us have wished we’d gone in for some other line of work like, say, welding or psychology. Who hasn’t? But when the first man touches down on the moon a few years from now, well, we’ll know the whole thing has been more than worth it.”

Kelly A. Giblin is a licensed professional engineer who lives in East Windsor, New Jersey.

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