NASA will this week be paying tribute to an unexpected tragic event that took place at Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 34 exactly 50 years ago tomorrow that lead to the death of three NASA astronauts, including Virgil (Gus) Grissom, Ed White II, and Roger Chaffee. The one cry that could be heard by mission control when it all went down was “Got a fire in the cockpit!”
Image Credit: NASA via AP
The astronauts were onboard practicing a launch sequence when a sudden interior fire broke out, thought to be due to electric arcing from faulty wiring. Because the astronauts were closed inside the capsule when the fire broke out, they were strapped in and were unable to get to the exit latch in time. The fire consumed the three of them, and the mission was called off until a later date.
Because of all of the more recent events that took place, including the Challenger accident in 1986 and the Columbia accident in 2003, this isn’t an accident that you hear of too often. It has been buried in history, largely forgotten except by those who witnessed it first-hand.
To pay tribute to this horrific event, NASA will be putting the scorched capsule on display for tourists to view at Kennedy Space Center on Friday, where it has remained in storage for decades. The display is expected to raise awareness of what happened and honor the brave men who perished while performing their duties at work for the better sake of mankind.
The space agency reportedly reached out to the families, noting its condolences and shame for what happened, and requested the right to put the capsule on display for the public. After the families agreed, NASA took the capsule out of storage in Virginia in 2016. It was well-preserved in its damaged state, but despite the tragedy that happened inside, the original capsule is unchanged from the accident.
Family members of the perished astronauts have taken to public statements, responding to NASA’s decision to display the capsule and honor the men.
Roger Chaffee’s widow said: “I'm just so pleased that they finally decided to do something—visibly—to honor the three guys. It's time that they show the three who died in the fire appreciation for the work that they did.”
Another to make a comment was Scott Grissom, the oldest son of Gus Grissom, and he had this to say: “This is way, way, way long overdue. But we're excited about it.” Since NASA was highly embarrassed by the failure, they tried to keep the details under wraps, “and that's why they pretty much kept it in the closet as long as they have,” he continued. "This is a long overdue step at doing right."
This is an important piece of history for American space travel. It was the awakening call that made NASA overhaul its Apollo program by adding more safety features to the capsule, including a quick-release hatch that would allow astronauts to escape quickly if they needed to, such as in the case of a fire.
Since the event, the updated Apollo capsule was more successful in getting mankind to the Moon. It carried a grand total of 24 astronauts there, 12 of which actually landed and walked on the Moon’s surface.