Apollo 1: The Crew of a New Machine

Fifty years ago on this date the crew of the first manned American Apollo mission was announced. Gus Grissom was named commander of the three-man crew that included Ed White, the nation’s first spacewalker, and rookie Roger Chaffee. Grissom and Chaffee were both Purdue University engineering graduates.

For Grissom, the first human to fly twice in space, the prized assignment meant he was on schedule to become the first to fly a third mission. As the Apollo program gained momentum, Grissom also was positioned to be among the first—perhaps the first, some thought—to walk on the moon.

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Robert Gilruth, right, director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, introduces the crew of the first manned Apollo flight on March 21, 1966. From left, Roger Chaffee, Ed White and commander Gus Grissom. (NASA)

Walt Cunningham, a member of the Apollo 1 backup crew, noted in his insider account of Project Apollo, The All-American Boys: “Among the milestones of a test pilot’s career are those rare first flights of a brand-new aircraft design (or spacecraft), and now Gus would be logging two in a little over two years.”[1]

Grissom and his crew soon discovered the heightened risks that accompanied the prestige of making the first flight of a new machine. The early version of the Apollo crew cabin was a mess. From March 1966 to January 1967, Grissom and his crew along with backup commander Wally Schirra struggled mightily to make the ship flightworthy. Schirra told Grissom the day before a fatal test to “get out” of the spacecraft if he sensed any problems. Grissom noted Schirra’s warning but chose to press on.

The crew of Apollo 1 never got off the ground, dying tragically and unnecessarily in a launch pad fire on the evening of January 27. 1967, during what was considered a “routine” test. Design decisions made in the early 1960s such as using a 100-percent cabin atmosphere had doomed the first Apollo crew.

Today it seems counterintuitive, but at the time nearly everyone at NASA realized the United States would never have reached the moon by the end of the 1960s if not for the Apollo 1 disaster. The early American space program was divided between everything that occurred before and after what came to be known simply as “The Fire.” The truth was no one really knew how to reach the moon. The bitter lessons of the fire and the crew’s sacrifice shook the space agency to its core; NASA somehow righted itself, ensuring that Grissom and his crew did not die in vain. Twelve humans walked on the moon between 1969 and 1971.

Gus Grissom’s inestimable role in Apollo, Gemini and Project Mercury is central to understanding the Space Race and the Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Grissom was an astronaut and a Cold Warrior. We tell his story in the forthcoming biography, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom.

Unlike today’s media creations, Gus Grissom was an authentic hero, a man judged not by his words alone but by his deeds. He shunned the limelight and labored mostly behind the scenes to help America reach another world.

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[1] Walter Cunningham, The All-American Boys, updated iBooks paperback edition, 2004, pp. 64-65.