KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.—A long, painful chapter in the history of manned spaceflight finally ended this past week on a deserted expanse of concrete at the Kennedy Space Center on the wind-swept Canaveral shores of Florida. On a starlit evening at the base of a crumbling concrete pedestal, a kind of closure was achieved for the grieving families of the doomed crew of Apollo 1.
As those who run the American space program acknowledged, it was "about time." In reality, 50 years after Gus Grissom and his crew were killed in an inferno on Pad 34, official and therefore meaningful recognition of their sacrifice was long overdue.
NASA, for the first time in half a century, made a forthright attempt to do right by the crew. After months of delicate negotiations, it was decided to display a small portion of the scorched Spacecraft 012, otherwise known as the Apollo 1 command module. The public display of the spacecraft hatches that contributed to the avoidable deaths of Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee on a long-ago Friday evening represents a break from the space agency's stubborn resistance to acknowledge the consequences of its negligence.
Along with the families, and especially Gus Grissom's brother Lowell, much of the credit for the new Apollo 1 exhibit goes to its center director, Robert Cabana. The veteran shuttle astronaut at long last found a dignified way to display at least part of the spacecraft. In so doing, Cabana vowed that the mistakes and oversights, the shoddy quality control, the rush to launch that undermined crew safety, would never be repeated. Others will be lost in the exploration of the solar system, but the KSC director pledged that it would not happen through the negligence of this agency.
The preference of some, including members of the dead astronauts' families, was a dignified display of the entire spacecraft, now rusting in what amounts to a storage container at NASA's facility in Langley, Va. A full display remains politically unworkable for a number of complicated reasons. Nevertheless, an exhibit of the Apollo 1 hatches—a heavy, inner cork-like behemoth, an outer hatch that was part of the spacecraft thermal protection upon reentry, and an outer cover used to protect the astronauts when the escape tower was jettisoned—signifies that NASA has tried to move beyond what the former mission controller James Oberg correctly called "make-believe 'official remembrances'."
Oberg further argued that NASA's unwillingness to face up to its responsibility for the Apollo 1 fire—not a cover-up, but the unwitting encouragement to forget—represented nothing less than a "cultural failure."
We need to see the machines that killed the early space pioneers just as we need to see the great ships forged from the ashes of Apollo 1 that carried 24 human beings to and from the moon.
The decades of neglect—a kind of displacement behavior that had replaced the "perceptual blindness" of skilled Apollo engineers who simply missed what was right in front of them—struck many who admired the Apollo 1 crew as unjust. It prompted me to write a biography of Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom that seeks to place his crew's sacrifice in the context of manned space exploration.
Several Apollo astronaut colleagues showed up last week at Cape Canaveral to pay their final respects. These men—Tom Stafford, Mike Collins, Charlie Duke, Buzz Aldrin—all acknowledged they stood on the shoulders of giants.
Of the veteran astronaut/engineer Grissom, Collins noted, the first human to fly twice in space (on Project Mercury and Gemini) "was single-mindedly devoted to the [Apollo] program. Beyond that, he had a talent for engineering that put him at the top. He was a good test pilot, sure. But beyond that he had a fascination with—almost a love for—complex new machinery that he had to examine critically, learn and to master.
"If you were looking for Gus, try the night shift at the factory—he'd be there in the cockpit," the Apollo 11 command module pilot recalled.
Collins is perhaps the most thoughtful and certainly the most erudite of the men who flew to the moon. So much so that the space center director Cabana twice repeated Collins' astute observation: "We reached the moon because of Apollo 1, not in spite of Apollo 1."
None of this, of course, changes the fact that the lives of the astronauts' families were unalterably shaken. They have paid a heavy price, often at the hands of officious NASA bosses. Perhaps a public display of the spacecraft a half-century later will begin to heal the wounds of the Apollo 1 wives and children, who were accurately called the real "heroes" of the Space Race.
As Cabana completed his remarks on the evening of January 27, 2017, the International Space Station he had helped assemble, passed over Pad 34 in silent, shining tribute to the crew of Apollo 1.
Click on the image below to start the slideshow.
The entrance to the new Apollo 1 exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center.
--George Leopold is the author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom and served as EE Times'news director prior to 2013.