It’s been 50 years since the crew of Apollo 1 perished in a fire at the launch pad, but the lives, accomplishments and heroism of the three astronauts are celebrated in a dynamic, new tribute that is part museum, part memorial and part family scrapbook.
Called “Ad Astra Per Aspera – A Rough Road Leads to the Stars”, the tribute exhibit carries the blessings of the families of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee. It showcases clothing, tools and models that define the men as their parents, wives and children saw them as much as how the nation viewed them.
“Although the fire took place across the river on Launch Pad 34, their story didn’t end there and their legacy lives on today,” said Sheryl Chaffee, daughter of Roger Chaffee.
The tribute was dedicated during a ceremony at the Apollo/Saturn V Center at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday, Jan. 27, on the 50th anniversary of the fatal fire. It stands only a few miles from the long-abandoned Launch Complex 34, the launch pad where the fire took place. The pad was dismantled in 1968 after the launch of Apollo 7.
The new tribute features displays that tell the full story of the lives of the astronauts, the fire and the painstaking work the NASA team put in to rebound from the devastating loss.
“Ultimately, this is a story of hope, because these astronauts were dreaming of the future that is unfolding today,” said former astronaut Bob Cabana, center director at Kennedy. “Generations of people around the world will learn who these brave astronauts were and how their legacies live on through the Apollo successes and beyond.”
The main focus was to introduce the astronauts to generations who never met them and may not know much about them or the early space program.
“This lets you now meet Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee as members of special families and also as members of our own family,” said NASA’s Luis Berrios, who co-led the tribute design that would eventually involve more than 100 designers, planners and builders to realize. “You get to know some of the things that they liked to do and were inspired by. You look at the things they did and if anyone does just one of those things, it’s a lifetime accomplishment and they did all of it and more.”
For Grissom, one of NASA’s Original Seven astronauts who flew the second Mercury mission, a hunting jacket and a pair of ski boots are on display, along with a small model of the Mercury spacecraft and a model of an F-86 Sabre jet like the one he flew in the Korean War. A slide rule and engineering drafts typify his dedication to detail.
The small handheld maneuvering thruster that Ed White II used to steer himself outside his Gemini capsule during the first American spacewalk features prominently in the display case for the West Point graduate whose athletic prowess nearly equaled his flying acumen. An electric drill stands alongside the “zip gun,” as he called the thruster.
“It was great to juxtaposition it with a drill which was also a tool that Ed loved to use,” Berrios said. “He had a tremendous passion for making things for his family.”
Roger Chaffee, for whom Apollo 1 would have been his first mission into space, was an esteemed Naval aviator who became a test pilot in his drive to qualify as an astronaut later. Displayed are board games he played with his wife and kids on rare evenings free of training.
“One thing I took away was their powerful feeling that family life is family life and NASA life is NASA life,” Berrios said. “They all had moments that were cherished and very private and they guarded those moments.”
The three men had worked an earlier mission together as astronauts, but not as crewmates. During Gemini 4, the mission in which Ed White made his landmark spacewalk, Grissom and Chaffee served as CAPCOMs talking to White and mission commander James McDivitt.
The tribute also displays for the first time the three-section hatch from the Apollo 1 capsule that caught fire at Launch Complex 34 on Jan. 27, 1967. The astronauts were not able to escape the smoke and blaze inside the spacecraft before they asphyxiated despite their own efforts and those of numerous pad crew members who braved thick fumes and scorching temperatures to try to get the men out.
After the fire, NASA set out on an exhaustive examination of every element of the spacecraft and launch systems.
Beside the failed hatch is one element of the improvements, a redesigned hatch that would fly on all subsequent Apollo missions. Full of modifications that let the hatch open in five seconds in an emergency, the redesigned hatch is displayed as a symbol of all the improvements made throughout the Apollo spacecraft and NASA itself that would set the agency on a successful course to land 12 men on the moon.
“That part of the exhibit is a story of determination and resolve and also something as elemental as a hatch – the complexities of just one component in a vehicle that has over 2 million parts,” Berrios said. “After the loss of the crew in that tragic event, NASA learned how to really look at every piece of a rocket and imagine what could happen and it made the spacecraft safer and allowed us to get to the moon, land on it and even with Apollo 13, to recover that crew safely.”
After seeing the hatches, visitors will walk through a gateway and down the same metal walkway astronauts used later to get to the Apollo spacecraft as it stood on a Saturn V rocket poised for the moon.
“Grissom, White, Chaffee, President Kennedy – I think these names are appropriately mentioned together,” said Michael Collins, the command module pilot for Apollo 11. “Apollo 1 tragically cost three lives, but I think it saved more than three lives later. Without it, very likely we would’ve not landed on the moon by the end of the decade.”