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"Apollo 1" Fire Occurred Nineteen Years Before STS-51L/Challenger Accident

by David Brandt and Jim Spellman

WASHINGTON, D.C., -- While the Challenger accident a decade ago has focused media attention on ceremonies, commemorations and a pre-Super Bowl flyover honoring the "Challenger Seven," little is mentioned of the sacrifices made by another crew who died in a similar, tragic accident twenty-nine years ago.

Some have called them "The Forgotten Three." On January 27, 1967 -- nineteen years and one day before the Challenger accident -- astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee were killed in what was considered a "routine training mission." At 6:31pm (EST), near the end of a pre-launch countdown for the first flight of the Apollo program, a spark inside the spacecraft ignited a flash fire, killing the crew within seconds.

The "Fire on Pad 34" incident halted the moon landing program for 18 months. The similarities between the Apollo 1 and Challenger accidents are chilling, according to Jim Spellman, Executive Director for the National Space Society's Western Spaceport Chapter in California.

"The Apollo spacecraft was built by North American Aviation, the forerunner of Rockwell International, the team that built the space shuttle orbiters,"Spellman said. "In the fire's aftermath, a weeklong period of official mourning wa s held for the astronauts, followed by congressional hearings and a Presidential commission to find the cause of the accident -- just like the Challenger tragedy ten years ago."

"In both cases, negligence and faults in the construction and operation process were uncovered," Spellman added. "During the same time, this country and the media began a re-examination of the space program, and whether the risks and benefits outweighed the costs and loss of life."

However, as pointed out in Ron Howard's film "Apollo 13" (which made a point of paying tribute to the Apollo 1 crew in the movie's opening scene), tragedy gave way to triumph with the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the lunar surfa ce in the Sea of Tranquility two and a half years after the fire.

Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee before their last mission
"I think the lesson that needs to be learned here is the old phase, 'Those who fail to remember the past, are condemned to repeat it in the future,' stated David Brandt, Program Director for the National Space Society. "The irony tha t the two accidents occurred on nearly the same day almost nineteen years apart is not lost on us."

The "Forgotten Three" crewmembers of Apollo 1 came from varied backgrounds: Gus Grissom, the spacecraft commander, was one of the original "Mercury Seven" astronauts. He barely survived his first flight in July of 1961 when his "Liberty Bell 7" spacecraft sank in the Atlantic Ocean after the escape hatch prem aturely blew open. He later commanded the Gemini III mission --and privately named his spacecraft "Molly Brown" after the Broadway musical, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

Ed White served as Lunar Module pilot on Apollo 1, and was the first American to "walk in space" in 1965 -- two months after Soviet cosmonaut Alexi Leonov became the first man to accomplish that feat.

Roger Chaffee, the Command Module pilot, at age 34, was a space "rookie" -- and would have been the youngest American astronaut to fly into space at the time.

In the years since the Apollo 1 fire, surviving family members have attempted to have the United States Postal Service issue a commemorative stamp in honor of the crew, to no avail. "I think it's tragic that many in the media, and th e general public as well, have forgotten about the sacrifices made in the Apollo 1 fire," stated Lori Garver, Executive Director of the National Space Society. "The Postal Service released a stamp in honor of the Challenger crew last year," Garver said. "Perhaps with next year marking the 30th anniversary of Apollo 1, we could do something to correct the oversight."

While honoring the crew of Apollo 1 would look like the Society is dwelling in the past, Garver emphasized the goals of the organization are firmly focused on the future. "Valuable lessons have been learned from both the Apollo 1 and Challenger accidents," Garver stated. "As America pushes back the frontiers of space, erecting the space station and venturing beyond, we realize there will be further setbacks." The crews of Apollo 1 and Challenger showed us that the mission must cont inue -- as it has to this day, in spite of the danger and associated risks," Garver added.

"Gus Grissom said it best, in an interview three weeks before his death," stated Jim Spellman. "He said, 'If we die, do not mourn for us. This is a risky business we're in, and we accept those risks. The space program is too valuab le to this country to be halted for too long if a disaster should ever happen."

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Apollo Manned Space Program

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