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On July 20, 1969, the world watched as Neil Armstrong took humankind’s first steps on the moon.

This giant leap instantly became the defining moment in space history. There were now American footprints on the moon, fulfilling the late President John F. Kennedy’s promise to do so by the end of the decade.

Pad 34, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, looking west on the evening of January 27, 2017, fifty years to the day of the Apollo 1 fire. Several private memorials have been placed at the site over the decades. One reminds visitors: “Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived.” (Photo by George Leopold)

NASA’s accomplishment is all the more incredible in light of the tragedy that occurred just two-and-half years prior, when on January 27, 1967, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives in a fire during a launch pad test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft. The nation was in shock and NASA was forced to confront the mistakes that led to the avoidable deaths of its own astronauts.

In its haste to reach the moon by the end of the decade, NASA had pushed the flawed Apollo 1 craft to its limits. Though it was too late for the Apollo 1 astronauts, NASA ultimately realized that there was much that needed to be changed if they were to make it to the moon.

“One of the cruel ironies, the central paradox of the Space Race, was that a launch pad fire actually saved the Apollo program,” notes George Leopold, Gus Grissom’s biographer. “The reason was the evidence of what had been overlooked in Grissom’s ship—the faulty wiring, the leaking coolant, the lack of flame-retardant materials in the spacecraft, the clumsy, inward-opening hatch, and most important of all, NASA’s misguided engineering decision to use pure oxygen under pressure on the launch pad—all of it was there for the investigators to sift through.”

Tragedy struck, but NASA learned from it, and the groundwork was laid to successfully put humankind on the moon.

Armstrong was empowered to take that first giant leap on the surface of the moon because of those who did so before him on Earth, including Grissom, White, and Chaffee who took calculated risks to fulfill Kennedy’s promise.

NASA did not make it to the moon despite the failure of the mission; rather, NASA achieved their goal because of the contributions and the sacrifices of these astronauts, and the doors they opened for future giant leaps

As Purdue University celebrates 150 Years of Giant Leaps with its sesquicentennial celebration in 2019; as the world recognizes the fiftieth anniversary of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in July of this year; we cast the spotlight, today, on the crew of Apollo 1 and in particular Purdue alumnus astronauts Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, whose giant leaps and ultimate sacrifice moved humankind forward, to the moon and beyond.

 


 

The information in this post came from Grissom’s biography, Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom, Revised and Expanded and a previous Q&A with the author, George Leopold.