On Challenger Anniversary: Spare a Thought for Apollo 1

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Bettmann / CORBIS

Apollo 1 astronauts prepare in a flight simulator

Every national tragedy develops its own traction. All human lives may be equal, but the loss of some cut us more deeply than others. Four American presidents have been assassinated. The death of two of them — Lincoln and Kennedy — shook the country to its roots. Garfield and McKinley? Not so much. They were merely murdered; the other two were martyred.

There's a similar if subtler gap separating other cases of national loss. Hideous as the Virginia Tech murders were, Columbine somehow hit us harder. Was it the age of the victims? The elaborate plotting by the murderers? Impossible to say. Pearl Harbor, similarly, left the nation stunned, enraged and immediately vengeful. Sept. 11, by contrast, left us wholly in shock — at least at first.

It's worth remembering the ways we remember on a week like this, when we're marking the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. January 28 has been bordered in black on the national calendar ever since that terrible morning, but January 27 had been similarly marked already. Nineteen years and one day before Challenger exploded was the date of the Apollo 1 fire, the launchpad accident that claimed the lives of space veterans Gus Grissom and Ed White and their rookie crew-mate Roger Chaffee.

It was a Friday evening, and Grissom, White and Chaffee were running through a simulated countdown on the pad at Cape Canaveral. They were fully suited, the capsule was fully pressurized and the hatch was bolted shut. A frayed wire to Grissom's left let fly a spark, one that would have been entirely harmless at sea level pressure in an ordinary nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere. In the high-pressure, 100% oxygen environment of the Apollo spacecraft, it was like dropping a match in gasoline. A flash fire tore through the cockpit at temperatures exceeding 1,200 F (650 C), hot enough to ignite aluminum. Grissom, White and Chaffee tried — briefly — to unbolt the hatch, but they were quickly overcome. NASA engineers who listened to the never-released cockpit recordings assured the public that the men had suffered for no more than two seconds.

The loss was terrible and the astronauts were richly honored — military men all, they received the proper parades, speeches and ceremonial burials — but their deaths soon receded, eclipsed by other news and the mere passage of time. Yet time has passed since Challenger too — and there has surely been enough news to distract us in the past quarter century — and all the same, the loss of that crew continues to cause us deep, primal pain.

Part of that, surely, is the mere question of numbers. Seven people died in Challenger; three in Apollo 1. Part of it is the public nature of the tragedy too. We experienced Apollo 1 second-hand, through news reports and eyewitness accounts and eventual photographs of the charnel-house spacecraft long after the astronauts had been removed. Challenger we watched — the familiar ignition, the familiar liftoff, the familiar climb, all followed by the horribly unfamiliar two-fingered fireball that consumed the ship.

There was, perhaps, a trace of national shame in the Challenger disaster as well. Apollo astronauts were professionals — officers, test pilots, men trained and practically bred for space. By the time Challenger flew, we'd convinced ourselves we had the whole spaceflight thing licked. And so we picked a schoolteacher and we asked her to fly and we strapped her in — and then we blew her up. Christa McAuliffe left a husband and two children — ages six and nine — behind when she died.

Finally too, there was Ronald Reagan. The cult of personality built around the 40th President has prettified his memory even more than the historical softening all past presidents enjoy. Still, there was no minimizing the power of his words when he addressed the nation from the Oval Office that night and comforted the families at a later memorial at Cape Canaveral. His reference to slipping 'the surly bonds of Earth' was borrowed from poet John Gillespie Magee, but Reagan made the imagery his.

And so it's right that we think about Challenger every January 28th. But that does not mean we shouldn't spare a thought for Apollo 1 every January 27 too. Grissom was a pioneer — a two-time space veteran who was the second American in space and commanded the first Gemini mission. White was a skywalker — literally — the first American to leave his spacecraft and float tethered in the void above the planet. Chaffee was a fighter, a Naval pilot who, before he joined NASA, was flying reconnaissance missions over Cuba during the powder keg days of the 1962 missile crisis.

And for what it's worth, the men did suffer. The Apollo 1 cockpit tape has always been kept under tight security, locked inside a sort of vault within a vault in the NASA archives. One day, however, many years ago, someone with the proper clearance checked the recording out and then, when trying to return it, misrouted it through office mail. The tape landed on the desk of an agency official I knew who has since passed away. The official recognized what was in front of him immediately and stared at it, torn between the noble impulse to return the thing straightaway and the entirely human impulse to listen to it first. He was human, and so he gave in.

"That was no two seconds," he told me much later. "No two seconds at all."