The crew of Apollo 1 – Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – perished on January 27, 1967 when a fire swept through their spacecraft during a routine test three weeks before launch. They should also be memorialized on this Memorial Day!
Apollo 1 commander Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom was one of America’s original astronauts, chosen to participate in Project Mercury after years as an Air Force test pilot. He flew the second Mercury mission, a sub-orbital flight on July 21, 1961, losing the spacecraft when the hatch prematurely blew and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Questioned and criticized, an embarrassed Gus bounced back and commanded the first Gemini mission in 1965, and was asked to lead the first Apollo flight set for early 1967. If all went well, Gus had a private assurance that he would be the first man on the moon.
Senior pilot Edward Higgins White II joined the NASA astronaut corps in 1962, as a member of the Second Group, the “New Nine,” along with notable astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, Tom Stafford, Pete Conrad, and Frank Borman. A graduate of West Point and the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, Ed White had logged thousands of flight hours before joining the space agency. In 1965 he flew as a pilot aboard Gemini 4 and became the first American to walk in space. Rather than command his own Gemini mission, which all other Second Group pilots did, Ed was chosen by Gus to serve on the Apollo 1 crew.
Pilot Roger Bruce Chaffee was the mission’s rookie, having joined the corps in 1963 as a member of NASA Astronaut Group Three. Although he did not fly during Project Gemini, Roger served as one of the capsule communicators, known as CapCom, during White’s Gemini 4 mission. Before becoming an astronaut, Roger flew numerous operations as a Navy pilot over Cuba from 1960 to 1962 when tensions with the island nation were at their peak.
“There’s always a possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, of course; this can happen on any flight; it can happen on the last one as well as the first one. So, you just plan as best you can to take care of all these eventualities, and you get a well-trained crew, and you go fly.”
“People might look at our work as being perhaps dangerous, or risky of sorts, but I think we train in it and work in it so much and understand it well enough that we don’t look at it from this viewpoint. We accept the risks.”
“There’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of problems that could develop or might develop and they’ll have to be solved. And that’s what we’re there for. This is our business to find out if this thing will work for us.”