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Published January 27, 2015

My Heroes Have Always Been Space Cowboys

It’s a hell of a price we pay for knowledge and experience. But there are those, like these men, who are willing to take that risk for us all. Today begins the saddest week in NASA history. From 1967 until February 1, 2003, every life lost in or on a U.S. space mission happened.

January 27, begins the sad experiences. Please, take a moment sometime today. In silence, count off 20 seconds. Twenty actual seconds of silence. Twenty seconds can seem an eternity. And remember…

Watching Walter Cronkite report the CBS Evening News on January 27, 1967 was an unexpected slap into reality. America’s space program was rolling along with one successful mission after another. Everyone it seemed had ‘go fever’ in the race to land a man on the moon. On this day, NASA was conducting a ‘plugs out’ test on the launch pad with the three astronauts who were to test the first Apollo command and service module in Earth orbit. This was to be the vehicle which would take men to the moon and back home again.

NASA seemed to have a magic touch with manned missions. There were a few problems on some missions, but the astronauts had always gotten back safe and sound. Cronkite’s somber report that evening reminded us of just how dangerous space flight – ‘riding a controlled explosion’ – really is.

A flash fire in the Apollo command module during the test on the pad had just taken the lives of three astronauts. It would be learned later that a short circuit caused a fire in the pure oxygen environment, killing the three astronauts in less than twenty seconds.

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Gus Grissom was an outgoing, energetic veteran of space flight. He had flown on the second Mercury, sub-orbital flight into space. He had commanded Gemini 3, the only Gemini with a name: “Molly Brown”. His Mercury capsule had prematurely blown the hatch after splashdown, taking the capsule and nearly taking him to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The name given to Gemini 3 showed Grissom’s sense of humor and determination, even in the face of setbacks. He was the commander of the flight NASA had designated AS-204 (Apollo/Saturn, vehicle 204).

Ed White was a certified astronaut-hero in his own right. He had performed the first space walk by an American as a member of the Gemini 4 crew. He was in the center seat in the Apollo command module that fateful day. It was his job to get the hatch open – a hatch that opened inward – in case of emergency. Opening the triple-layer hatch when the cabin was not pressurized took a minimum of 90 seconds. This day, the cabin was pressurized higher than the outside air pressure, making it virtually impossible to open the hatch until the cabin had been depressurized.

Roger Chafee was in the right hand seat. This was to be his first flight into space. Chafee was there almost accidentally. Donn Eisele was to have occupied that seat on this mission. After coming down with a rather nasty viral infection, Eisele was moved to the following mission and replaced on this one by his backup, Chaffee.

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Review of what happened that day showed the fire started in a bundle of wires near Grissom’s feet, an area visible to Chaffee from his seat. To save weight, the wires had been insulated with a thin coating of brittle varnish. Somehow, the wires had been jostled, breaking the insulation on some of them.

The last, clear words heard from the crew came from Chaffee.

“I smell fire,” he said. Seconds later, he was heard to urgently say, “Fire in the spacecraft!” The only sounds heard after were of movement in the capsule.

Nineteen seconds later, there was nothing but silence.

Ed White had acknowledged that advances in technology were making it simpler, easier, cheaper to explore space. But he emphasized the need for manned spaceflight:

  • You’ll never satisfy man’s curiosity unless a man goes himself.

Just weeks before his death, Gus Grissom wrote:

  • There will be risks, as there are in any experimental program, and sooner or later, we’re going to run head-on into the law of averages and lose somebody. I hope this never happens, and… perhaps it never will, but if it does, I hope the American people won’t think it’s too high a price to pay for our space program.

Roger Chafee’s memory is of his genuine appreciation of everyone who was a part of the effort to get men to the moon and back. On a visit to the plant where the lunar modules were being built, he walked away from the v.i.p. group of engineers, ceo’s and managers who were escorting him on a tour of the facilities and approached the men and women in the assembly areas.

He made an effort to talk to as many of the bolt-turners, painters, parts washers and even the janitors to tell them just how much he and all of the astronauts appreciated their contributions to the space program.

In their memory, the wives of the three astronauts asked NASA to change the designation of AS-204 to something that would remind us of what their mission was. NASA agreed, and subsequently designated the mission of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee as “Apollo 1”. All subsequent missions would carry a similar designation instead of the “AS-###” designations.

A ‘successful failure’ in flight testing is one which technically fails, yet achieves a measure of success that may not have been learned otherwise. What was learned from the fatal fire in the spacecraft that day led to the development of a far superior and safer command module that enabled men to reach the moon.

RELATED: Childhood’s End: The Day We Lost Challenger.

The lesson for us all is that we can never truly fail if we pursue our goals with determination to succeed. Failure, these brave men taught us, is impossible for those who refuse to abandon their goals. Our most fitting tribute to them is to continue to do what they gave their lives trying to achieve. It is by continuing our exploration of space, even at great personal risk, that we honor the crew of “Apollo 1”.

My Heroes Have Always Been Space Cowboys
After Pad 34’s steel support structures were removed because of deterioration, the remaining concrete supports were designated as “Abandoned in Place” indicating that they will be left forever; A silent memorial to the individuals who participated in man’s first step towards the moon.

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  • Earl Barber


  • Earl Barber is a blue collar working stiff who prefers playing his 12-string acoustic guitar for free to most any other endeavor. An occasional essayist, Earl has been posting on random internet sites, most notably the old WRAL-TV GOLO pages, with his essays for over ten years. All my articles.

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