As long as I can remember I have had an avid interest in the space program. I suppose a lot of young kids do. Many of us dream of riding a rocket into space or walking on the moon. Yet very few will ever have the opportunity. Something will always throw us off the path. Not that I was super serious about being an astronaut, but what did me in was mathematics, and very early in life at that. I first met math in the first grade in 1979 and we had a very violent collision that year, then a tense relationship ensued over the next dozen years or so until I finally slid by college algebra, and we haven’t spoken since.
Science, mathematics, and engineering were never my subjects of choice, which meant I wasn’t flying anywhere, but history was, so it was the history of NASA and the race for the moon that excited me the most. But the thrills of the space program have always fascinated me.
Though only a lad of seven when the first space shuttle was launched in April 1981, I don’t recall the launch itself but I do remember when it landed at Edwards Air Force Base and I vividly recollect seeing the chase planes and how small they seemed next to the shuttle as it came home. And of course, I remember hearing the news that the Challenger had exploded while in the seventh grade.
In 1997, my brother and I were able to view the launch of space shuttle Columbia as VIP guests of NASA. It was the most thrilling three minutes of my life!
So, naturally, as I began my career as a historian and writer, I thought about writing a book on some aspect of the space program’s storied history. But what could I do? So much had been done already. My favorite mission has always been Apollo 8, the first flight out to the moon, but a number of excellent books came out on that historic mission’s 50th anniversary. I really liked the Gemini program and believe that it has not gotten its due, but that alone wouldn’t excite too many people.
Then one night in the fall of 2019, I was riding in my car thinking about possible topics and it suddenly hit me: the tragedy of Apollo 1, the awful fire that swept through the Apollo spacecraft on January 27, 1967 during a pre-launch test that killed the crew of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. I couldn’t then think of a book about NASA’s first disaster so I began working out a proposal for my publisher, Regnery.
There had, in fact, been one book on Apollo 1, an anti-NASA diatribe published in 1968 by Erik Bergaust entitled Murder on Pad 34: The Shocking Story of the Apollo Disaster–and Why It May Happen Again!, a polemic in which the title alone gives away its obvious bias against the space program.
But I wanted to do something positive, to look at such a tragic incident in a meaningful way, to do real justice and honor to the three victims of the fire – Grissom, White, and Chaffee. And to assign appropriate blame.
The project also had another major objective: To keep the memory of Grissom, White, and Chaffee alive and well in the hearts and minds of current generations of Americans. Discussing the potential book with family and friends, I soon discovered that there were many people, alive at the time of the tragedy, who did not remember it, or at least not very well. Something new needed to be done.
Having completed a book on President Warren Harding for Regnery History, which was due out in September 2020, I pitched Apollo 1 to the editors. They liked it better than Harding and asked to shelve the Harding book and publish Apollo 1 first. I quickly agreed.
I worked night and day for more than six months. I read books, NASA reports, and congressional testimony, and talked to engineers who helped investigate the fire and re-design the spacecraft and to a few family members of the fallen crew.
In the finished product, I discuss the space program from its earliest days before manned flight through the Mercury and Gemini programs. I include accounts of the lives of each crew member. There is one whole chapter dedicated to the fire, one detailing the investigations – by NASA and Congress, and then an important chapter dealing with the politics that lay behind the scenes. As I wrote in the book, “Politics killed Gus, Ed, and Roger.”
My conclusion is that had the fire not happened, not only would we have failed to meet President Kennedy’s deadline of landing on the moon by the end of the decade, we wouldn’t have made it to the moon at all.
My hope is that the book will keep alive the memory of three American heroes and the tragedy that helped pave the way for American success in space exploration.