It was 50 years ago today -- January 27, 1967, when tragedy struck on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy during a pre-flight test for Apollo 204 (AS-204). The mission was to be the first crewed flight of Apollo, and was scheduled to launch on February 21, 1967. Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives when a fire swept through the Apollo Command Module.
The exhaustive investigation of the fire and extensive reworking of the Apollo Command Modules postponed crewed launches until NASA officials cleared them for flight. Saturn IB launch schedules were suspended for nearly a year, and the launch vehicle that finally bore the designation AS-204 also carried an Apollo Lunar Module as the payload. The missions of AS-201 and AS-202 with Apollo spacecraft aboard had been unofficially known as Apollo 1 and Apollo 2 missions. AS-203 carried only the aerodynamic nose cone.
In the spring of 1967, NASA's Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, Dr. George E. Mueller, announced that the mission originally scheduled for Grissom, White, and Chaffee would be known as Apollo 1, and said that the first Saturn V launch, scheduled for November 1967, would be known as Apollo 4. The eventual launch of AS-204 became known as the Apollo 5 mission. No missions or flights were ever designated Apollo 2 or Apollo 3.
The second launch of a Saturn V took place on schedule in the early morning of April 4, 1968. Known as AS-502, or Apollo 6, the flight was a success, though two first-stage engines shut down prematurely, and the third-stage engine failed to reignite after reaching orbit.
To mark the solemn occasion, Kennedy Space Center employees and guests paid their respects to all astronauts who have perished in the conquest of space. The annual Kennedy Day of Remembrance activities included a ceremony in the Center for Space Education at Kennedy's visitor complex. The observance was hosted by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation, paying tribute to those who acknowledged space is an unforgiving environment, but believed exploration is worth the risk.
The ceremony also honored the astronauts of the STS-51L Challenger crew who perished in 1986, the STS-107 crew of Columbia who died in 2003, along with other astronauts who were lost in the line of duty.
NASA Acting Administrator, Robert Lightfoot, noted that spaceflight is a tough, unforgiving business.
"The reward is the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of what we learn as human beings. It's written in our DNA to continue that journey," he said. "My generation stands on the shoulders of these giants we are honoring and recognizing. They exemplify the pioneering spirit that got us to where we are today."
Center Director Bob Cabana, a former space shuttle commander, spoke on the reason for the ceremony.
"Each year, at this time, we come together and we pause to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in our quest to explore beyond our home planet," he said. "We pause to enforce the lessons learned so they are not repeated again."
Looking ahead, Cabana challenged the NASA-industry team to apply the crucial instructions from previous tragedies.
"Creating and maintaining a culture of trust and openness is the greatest lesson we can learn from the past," he said. "It is critical for our future success and the success of our commercial partners."
Apollo 1 was scheduled to lift off from Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) Air Force Station on February 21, 1967. A veteran of both Mercury and Gemini, Gus Grissom was selected as commander. Senior pilot was Ed White, the first American to walk in space. Rounding out the crew was first time flyer Roger Chaffee, a member of the third group of NASA astronauts.
On the afternoon of January 27, 1967, the Apollo 1 crew arrived at the Cape's Launch Complex 34 for a launch countdown rehearsal. They boarded their spacecraft perched atop a Saturn 1B rocket. At 6:31 PM EST a cockpit fire was reported by the crew. Ground crews worked valiantly to open the complex hatch, but the crew perished before it could be removed.
Former Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins, served as keynote speaker. He noted that the lessons learned from the Apollo 1 accident were crucial to the ultimate success of the lunar landing program.
"Apollo 1 is just as important to contemplate as a launch that did not take place, but which was, in many ways, as important as any that flew," he said. "It slowed things down, but we gained increased reliability."
Sheryl Chaffee, daughter of Roger Chaffee, recently retired after working for NASA at Kennedy for 33 years. She echoed Collins comments.
"From the ashes of the Apollo 1 fire came the hard lessons NASA had to learn in order to have successful flights to the moon and for further exploration of space," she said. "I'm so proud to be here today with all of you to pay tribute to my father, his crew mates and the other fallen astronauts memorialized on the space mirror."
Apollo 16 lunar module pilot Charlie Duke, State Representative Thad Altman, president and chief executive officer of the AMF, and Apollo launch team member John Tribe also participated in the ceremony.
The Space Mirror Memorial includes the names of the fallen astronauts from Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia, as well as astronauts who perished in training and commercial airplane accidents. The names are emblazoned on the monument's 45 foot high by 50 foot wide polished black granite surface. It was dedicated in 1991 and since has been designated a National Memorial by Congress.
The STS-51L crew of Challenger included the first Teacher in Space participant, Christa McAuliffe, a Concord, New Hampshire, high school instructor. Also aboard were Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, and Ron McNair, along with payload specialist Greg Jarvis, an engineer with the Hughes Aircraft Company. After lifting off on January 28, 1986, the crew perished when the vehicle exploded 73 seconds into the flight.
The STS-107 crew of the shuttle Columbia, Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and Israeli Space Agency astronaut Ilan Ramon, were lost when the shuttle broke apart during re-entry on February 1, 2003.
Mike Adams, the first in-flight fatality of the space program, died as he piloted an X-15 rocket plane on November 15, 1967. Robert Lawrence, Theodore Freeman, Elliott See, Charles Bassett, and Clifton Williams were lost in training accidents. Manley "Sonny" Carter died in a commercial aircraft crash while on NASA business.
Following the ceremony, a memorial wreath was placed at the Space Mirror Memorial by Sheryl Chaffee, Lowell Grissom (brother of Gus Grissom), Carly Sparks (granddaughter of Grissom), and Bonnie White Baer (daughter of Ed White).
Less than a month before the Apollo 1 accident, Gus Grissom completed the first draft manuscript for a book titled "Gemini" about the program that bridged Project Mercury to Apollo. On the last page, he wrote about the hazards of human spaceflight.
"There will be risks, as there are in any experimental program," he said. "But I hope the American people won't feel it's too high a price for our space program."