Today is the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy that claimed the lives of three of the most promising astronauts in America’s manned space program, and likely set the Lunar landing of Apollo 11 back a year. Ironically, it was not a mission that claimed the lives of the three astronauts, but a routine test leading up to the mission, which was set to launch sometime in the first quarter of the year.
By 1967, the American Space program was well underway, with both the Mercury and Gemini missions completed, which had yielded valuable information for the next stage of space exploration. The Mercury program had been designed to see if humans could go to space and return safely, with twenty unmanned flights, followed by six manned flights by the first American astronauts. Astronaut Alan Shepherd was the first to pilot Freedom 7, and was the first American in space, just months after Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin‘s historic flight in April of 1961.
Mercury was followed by the Project Gemini, which was designed to evaluate whether humans, now that we could reach space, could exist in it, and travel out to the moon. Ten missions were launched, each testing various aspects of a future moon mission. NASA discovered that they could rendezvous one space craft with another, that EVAs were possible and more. Each flight added valuable knowledge to what we knew about spaceflight.
Members of the Mercury 7 reappeared – Grissom and Schirra both commanded missions, and new, well known astronauts went into space, including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, Mike Collins, familiar names who would be associated with the next major space project, Apollo.
Apollo is the project that is known far and above the others. There, we learned to go to the moon and did so, six times. It was also the project that had the most disastrous problems – most would point to Apollo 13, when an explosion crippled the spacecraft, aborting the mission and leaving the crew to almost perish in space.
The first Apollo mission ended in tragedy. On January 27th, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were conducting a routine test of the cockpit when an electrical short sparked a fire in the pure oxygen environment within the capsule. The crew was unable to open the cockpit door, and within minutes, died of smoke inhalation. There was nothing the ground crew could do to save the crew. The fire pushed the Apollo program back, and prompted a redesign of the capsule after an intensive and critical study of the problem.
It was an unfortunate tragedy, one that could have very well been averted. But, as NASA has done, the incident was investigated, and the program went underway, and it will continue to do so. This goes to show that spaceflight is dangerous, that it requires precision, care and caution. In the end, we reached the moon. But we should not forget those who never saw us reach it.