The fire which claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee stunned the nation and rocked the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The disaster had the potential to bring a permanent halt to American efforts in space exploration. Rather than bury its head in the sand, NASA launched a full-scale investigation of the fire, and voluntarily put the entire Apollo program, including its administration, policies and procedures under the scrutiny of a review board. Based on the board's findings, NASA rolled up its sleeves and went to work to resolve the problems that had been identified.
A successful failure is a mission which fails to reach its objectives and yet still achieves an element of success. Apollo I never left the launch pad. However, the information gained from this fatal mission paved the way for a totally redesigned Apollo spacecraft, eleven Apollo space flights and six lunar landings. Although Grissom, White and Chaffee never walked on the moon, their sacrifice helped to make it possible for us collectively to take "one giant leap for mankind". (1)
It is crucial to remember the hard lessons learned from Apollo I and eulogies are part of that remembering. Yet, Grissom, White and Chaffee may be honored best by continuing the work they began. Each of them believed that reaching the moon was not meant to be an end but a beginning. Thirty years ago, Grissom considered manned missions to Mars and crews assembling, living and working on space stations as realistic follow-ups to a lunar landing. While he recognized the place of ever-improving technology, White was emphatic about the need for manned missions: "You'll never satisfy man's curiosity unless a man goes himself." (2)
Only weeks before he died, Gus Grissom wrote the following: "There will be risks, as there are in any experimental program, and sooner or later, we're going to run head-on into the law of averages and lose somebody. I hope this never happens, and... perhaps it never will, but if it does, I hope the American people won't think it's too high a price to pay for our space program." (3)
We can honor Grissom, White and Chaffee only if we follow in their footsteps and peacefully continue to explore space. Our future work in space is bound to include other successful failures. Yet Apollo I has taught us that we can never really fail as long as we doggedly persist in our efforts. The greatest lesson we can learn from Grissom, White and Chaffee is that failure is impossible for those who refuse to abandon their goals. Ultimately, the most fitting tribute to the crew of Apollo I is for us to continue doing that for which they gave their lives. As we expand our boundaries further into space, beyond this tiny sphere in the vast universe which we call earth, we honor Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.
1. Andrew Chaikin, A Man On The Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1995), p. 209.
2. Life, June 18, 1965, p. 39.
3. Virgil Grissom, Gemini: A Personal Account of Man's Venture Into Space (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968), p. 184.
Go to other detailed biographies of Apollo 204 Crew
Roger Chaffee biography
Gus Grissom biography
Ed White biography
Updated August 4, 2006
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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