Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Fire

Today marks a sad anniversary for anyone who is a NASA aficionado, as I am. On this date in 1967, during a routine test that marked the start of manned Apollo missions, fire swept through the Apollo 1 command module, killing the three astronauts inside: Command Pilot Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee. At the time of the fire, the capsule was pressured at sea level pressure with 100% pure oxygen. While the cause was never completely confirmed, a review board determined that a spark from a faulty wire may have ignited the fire, which, under the environment at the time, caused the capsule to be filled with flames. The crew were not incinerated by the flames, but the toxic gases released in the brief interval of the fire caused all three men to be asphyxiated. The reason the men could not escape the capsule at the inception of the fire, was that the spacecraft hatch did not have explosive latches as other previous hatches. In what can only be considered irony, this was due in part to an experience Gus Grissom had at the end of his Mercury flight, where the hatch blew prematurely upon the capsule landing in the water, causing it to sink, and almost taking Grissom to a watery grave.

Within NASA, the event would simply be come to known as "The Fire," and it marked a turning-point in the race to get to the Moon. For the first time, astronauts had lost their lives during actual operations. The seeming invincibility of these men and the Apollo program as a whole was dashed. Through a single event, the danger of spaceflight was driven home.

The luster of Mankind's accomplishment in conquering the distance between the Earth and the Moon is slowly becoming lost to history. Even now plans are being hatched for a return, but given the uncertain economic times, there is no guarantee that this renewed effort will be forthcoming. It is sad to think that we may not return to the Moon until after the last of the original Moonwalkers has passed. Sadder still that the contributions of men like Grissom, White, and Chaffee, and their heroic efforts, are completely forgotten. Think what you will of the "race to the Moon" and all that went into it, but even if you felt it vainglorious and wasteful, do not hesitate to mourn these men and the sacrifice they made for Mankind. We are poorer for their passing, but richer for their dedication and their adventurous spirit.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I knew about the fire, but I don't believe I know that they basically choked to death. What a crappy way to go-not that fire would have been any better, really.

    Seems like all the space tragedies happen around this time. I remember Feb. 1, when I woke up to the news that Columbia had exploded right over the town where I was living. That was a crazy few days.