The U.S. House of Representative recently approved plans to mint coins commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaching in July 2019. This is a worthy gesture.
There is, of course, another waypoint in the history of human spaceflight approaching in a few days: The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom and his crewmates Edward White and Roger Chaffee. Lawmakers have so far failed to act on a proposal for an Apollo 1 memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, where Grissom and Chaffee are interred. (It is hard to believe that after all these years no proper monument has been erected at Arlington.)
An Apollo 1 exhibit is said to be in the works at Cape Canaveral, Florida, but NASA has otherwise been silent about any plans to honor the memory of Grissom and his crew as January 27 approaches. This is unfortunate.
I and others have long advocated the dignified public display of the Apollo 1 command module as a symbol of the crews’ sacrifice and as a reminder that spaceflight is risky, that the United States conducts space exploration in front of the entire world—the triumphs as well as the tragedies. Others have correctly noted that NASA has offered largely empty gestures in honoring the Apollo 1 crew.
The NASA veteran James Oberg argued a decade ago that these “make believe” remembrances represent nothing less than a “cultural failure.” This needed to be said.
The space agency must now do what it should have done long ago: Honor the Apollo 1 crew with an appropriate display of the spacecraft that is accessible to all.
The USS Arizona still entombs the remains of its crew, but has been displayed with dignity at Pearl Harbor for decades. It is among the top historical sites in the nation. One can attend a performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. We need to accord the same honor to the Apollo 1 crew, and remind all who work to send humans into space that they must always be mindful of the what the early NASA pioneer Robert Gilruth called our “precious human cargo.”
Indeed, the display of another Grissom spacecraft—his recovered Liberty Bell 7—is inspiring a new generation of space enthusiasts. I recently viewed Grissom’s Mercury spacecraft at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where it is on loan. Salvaged in 1999, Grissom’s Mercury spacecraft was beautifully restored by the Kansas Cosmosphere after thirty-eight years at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
One museum visitor I met marveled how Gus Grissom ever managed to thrust himself out a small hatch opening as his ship filled with water when his hatch blew unexpectedly. Seeing Liberty Bell 7 for them selves made a profound impression on those who likely were just learning the story of Gus Grissom’s historic flight.
A similar display of the Apollo 1 command module would also teach valuable lessons about Grissom’s courage and selflessness—character traits in short supply these days.
Here’s hoping at long last that NASA does right by the memory of Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and his Apollo crewmates on the fiftieth anniversary of their ultimate sacrifice.
–George Leopold is the author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Time of Gus Grissom from Purdue University Press.