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.

‘Fire! We’ve Got a Fire in the Cockpit!’

On this date in 1967, a few ticks past 6:31 p.m. EST, a blowtorch fire erupted in the crew cabin of the Apollo 1 spacecraft during a launch pad test at Cape Canaveral, Florida, The spacecraft was pressurized with pure oxygen, the cockpit filled with flammable materials. All it took was a spark, almost certainly originating in faulty, exposed wiring.

The astronauts never had a chance.

Commander Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and crew members Edward H. White, Jr., and Roger B. Chaffee were asphyxiated despite struggling to the last to remove a heavy cork-like inner hatch. A fire was the last thing anyone expected during what was considered a “routine” test. It was anything but. Years of poor engineering decisions came home to roost on that fateful Friday evening.

The Apollo 1 tragedy would prove to be a critical turning point in the Space Race, forcing NASA to take a long, hard look at itself and the way it operated. A series of miscalculations beginning in the early 1960s had doomed the crew of the maiden Apollo flight.

Paradoxically, a preventable tragedy also ensured that the United States would reach the moon by the end of the decade as it had publicly proclaimed. The United States would not have reached the moon without the sacrifice of Grissom, White and Chaffee. The Apollo spaceship was completely overhauled, carrying 24 humans to the moon.

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Commander Gus Grissom leads his crew across a catwalk connecting the Pad 34 service tower to his Apollo 1 spacecraft on the morning of a fateful “plugs-out” test on January 27, 1967. (Source: NASA)

A central tenet of the early days of manned spaceflight was the assumption of risk while at the same time doing everything possible to limit it. This is how test pilots worked, and Gus Grissom was among the best military test pilots and aeronautical engineers before becoming one of the original Mercury astronauts. Grissom was among those who decided the rewards of spaceflight were worth the risk.

That calculated risk is the central theme of my forthcoming biography of Gus Grissom, the first human to fly twice in space. The stories of Glenn, Armstrong and the other heroes deemed to possess “The Right Stuff” are well known. Less well known are the lasting contributions and ultimate sacrifice made by Gus Grissom to reach another world. As the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire approaches, we seek to tell the full story of the life and career of a determined astronaut who shunned the limelight while laying the foundation for visiting another world.

 

Update on New Gus Grissom Bio Coming in June 2016

CR_coverAfter more than six years of researching, interviewing, drafting and rewriting, I am nearing completion of my biography of astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom. I and my publisher, Purdue University Press, remain on track for a June 2016 release.

The good folks in West Lafayette have also set up a Calculated Risk web page describing our Grissom project. It also includes the cover image for the hard back edition (also shown at right) and–most important of all–a button to pre-order the hard cover or e-book editions of Calculated Risk.

We invite you to take a look.

Among the many things I have discovered about Gus Grissom nearly 50 years after he perished is the wellspring of affection that remains for this pioneering astronaut and what he represented. Grissom was hands-on. He did not talk about doing things in space; he worked, prepared, tested, suited up and flew. Those who made it to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s stand on the shoulders of pioneers like Gus Grissom.

The release of Calculated Risk is timed to coincided with next year’s Indiana bicentennial celebration and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, the January 1967 tragedy that claimed the lives of Grissom and his crew.

We fervently hope to do justice to the extraordinary life, career and sacrifice of Gus Grissom.

Thanks to all who have assisted and encouraged me in this once-in-a-lifetime project.

New Gus Grissom bio coming in June 2016

My biography of the American astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom, will be released by Purdue University Press in June 2016.

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Apollo 1 Commander Gus Grissom shortly before his death in a launch pad fire.

My thesis challenges the prevailing view of Gus Grissom as a “hard luck” astronaut or the “lost astronaut.” He was neither, and knew at every step in his flying career where he was going and how he would get there. The meticulous engineering test pilot calculated the risks and attempted on each of his space flights to minimize them.

The odds–statistical probability in a “crash program” to reach the moon before the Soviets–eventually caught up with Gus Grissom. He nevertheless believed that the rewards were worth the risk.

As the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire approaches, a tragedy that claimed the lives of Grissom and his crew, it is time to reassess the pioneering astronaut’s life and career and the enduring contributions he made to the history of human space exploration.

As my publisher and I prepare for the release of Calculated Risk, I’ll provide periodic updates here, including an image of the book’s cover.

America is in need of heroes. Gus Grissom was an authentic risk taker and a hero who helped humanity reach another world.

George Leopold