You’ll be hearing plenty in the next few weeks about the upcoming film First Man based on James Hansen’s definitive biography of Neil Armstrong. Scheduled for release this fall, First Man starring Ryan Gosling as the first human to set foot on the moon is among a long list of documentaries and books timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing.
The golden anniversary in December of mankind’s first trip around the moon on Apollo 8 and the steppingstone flights that paved the way to Neil Armstrong’s boot print at Tranquility Base will be a celebration of one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Those who risked their hides to make those historic flights will be remembered for their courage and pioneering spirit.
As well we should.
Amid the celebrations, we should also recall the astronauts who paved the way for the first lunar explorers, those who embraced the risks of spaceflight and died in a great national effort they deemed worthy of that risk.
There will be passing references to the crew of Apollo 1—Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee—in the forthcoming films and books about the triumph of Neil Armstrong. You will hear a brief recounting of the facts surrounding the causes of the launch pad fire that killed Grissom’s crew in January 1967, the reckoning that followed, the bitter lessons learned. The rise from the ashes. And the determination by NASA to ensure the deaths of Grissom and his crew would not be in vain.
At this point in the standard narrative, their sacrifice is largely forgotten as each Apollo flight in 1968 and 1968 moves another step closer to Armstrong’s achievement.
As Gus Grissom’s biographer, it has been my intention to ensure that his incalculable contributions are not forgotten, that the tragic deaths of the crew of Apollo 1 were the price exacted in the quest to reach another world. They understood the risks and chose to continue.
It was the forgetting that prompted me to write a biography of Gus Grissom. The stories of the moon walkers are well known. An Academy Award-winning director has filmed Neil Armstrong’s life story. By contrast, Gus Grissom, the blue-collar astronaut, a working-class hero to many, got a bum rap in that most famous chronicle of the Space Race, The Right Stuff.
It is therefore heartening to hear, according to director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer, that the film version of First Man also addresses the human toll of the Space Race, not simply a series of successful Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights—punctuated by one disaster along the way. Lives were lost, families shattered in the effort to reach another world. Armstrong, like Gus Grissom, faced his own trials along the way.
I argued in the first edition of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom that NASA needed to move beyond the forgetting and display his charred Apollo spacecraft in a dignified way. To its credit, the space agency figured out a way to do just that in a way that mostly satisfied the families of Grissom, White and Chaffee.
I was there when a new Apollo 1 exhibit was christened at the Kennedy Space Center on the 50th anniversary of the fire. NASA at last did right by the crew. Some of the photos of young Gus Grissom published in my book are included in the KSC exhibit.
A revised and updated edition of Calculated Risk will be reissued this fall from Purdue University Press. While the second edition contains new material, the story of Gus Grissom’s life is more concise and, we believe, readable. A new afterword recounts NASA’s “Days of Remembrance” during which some of the men who went to the moon paid tribute to the crew of Apollo 1. All understood they stood on the shoulders of Grissom, White and Chaffee.
As Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins noted during the NASA remembrance, “We reached the moon because of Apollo 1, not in spite of Apollo 1.”
All should remember those who reached the moon as well as those who died trying as we observe the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing.