Looking back at the long history of American spaceflight, it seems that we've been relatively fortunate when it comes to rocketing men and women into orbit without injury or fatality. In the history of NASA, there are three major fatal disasters, and this week the first of them is getting a very public 50th-anniversary memorial.
On Jan. 27, 1967, astronauts Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom were killed when a fire erupted inside the Apollo 1 capsule while the trio were conducting a countdown test on the launch pad. Because the command module was fully pressurized, White was unable to quickly open the hatch, and all three astronauts were dead within seconds.
Along with the Challenger and Columbia disasters, it's one of the three great NASA tragedies, but unlike those tragedies, it does not have a memorial exhibit at Kennedy Space Center.
Now that's changing. Today, which marks the 50th anniversary of the fire, the families of the three astronauts will help dedicate a new exhibit at Kennedy featuring the Apollo 1 hatch. After the Columbia and Challenger tributes were unveiled in 2015, NASA began thinking about an exhibit for Grissom, White and Chaffee and consulted with the families on how to proceed. The hatch was taken out of storage and will now be displayed in three sections alongside the redesigned Apollo hatch, one of many improvements made to the Apollo command module after the accident.
For NASA, the exhibit is a chance to recognize the sacrifices of the Apollo 1 crew alongside the shuttle disasters. For the families, it's a long overdue step to honor their heroic loved ones.
"I'm just so pleased that they finally decided to do something — visibly — to honor the three guys," said Chaffee's widow, Martha. "It's time that they show the three who died in the fire appreciation for the work that they did."
The dedication of the new exhibit was preceded on Thursday by NASA's Day of Remembrance, which also includes the Apollo 1 crew.