I Felt Every Emotion Standing in the Shadows of NASA's Apollo 1 Fire
Traveling to Pad 34 last week—a trip generously arranged for me by NASA staff—made me feel like I finally knew my grandpa, who tried to save three astronauts.
Have you ever stood in the spot where someone died? These places have an uncanny feel to them. They're oddly peaceful. They're quiet, and powerful, and sad.
Last weekend, I stood in a spot where three astronauts had died, the spot where my grandfather had tried to save them: Pad 34, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base on Florida's Atlantic coast.
On January 27, 1967, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, NASA's crew for Apollo 1, died in a fire that broke out during a routine test. The mission was intended to launch a month later, and send the three astronauts into orbit to test out the equipment that would one day take a man to the moon.
My grandfather, a quality control inspector for NASA, was one of six men in the room adjacent to the capsule that night. He and the others fought through flames and dense, choking smoke to pry off the three-layer hatch and get the astronauts out, but they were too late.
I never met my grandfather, he died before I was born, but I felt like I got the chance to meet him whenI reported on the fire earlier this year. Traveling to Pad 34 last week—a trip generously arranged for me by NASA staff—made me feel like I finally knew him.
I wasn't there alone. My tour, a full-day escapade around Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, was led by John Tribe, a former NASA propulsion manager who worked on the Apollo missions through the Shuttle years. Tribe was also working at the Cape the night of the fire, and greatly contributed to my reporting of the story. He's also an encyclopedia of NASA history and knowledge, pivoting from showing me photos of him with Neil Armstrong to effortlessly discussing the maintenance required for the heat shield tiles on the Shuttle.
He didn't know my grandfather personally, but he told me mutual friends had said he was well-respected at NASA, and that was good enough for him. Tribe took me to the pad first, acknowledging that it was the more emotional part of the tour. He told me astronauts still visit the pad before missions, to contemplate, to pray.
While passing the SpaceX launch facility, he spotted a FalconX rocket, wrapped in plastic and loaded on the back of a giant truck bed. He pulled over our car and hopped out to take photos, as excited as someone who didn't put a man on the moon.
At the Space Center, we walked through a new memorial to Apollo 1—including a wall dedicated to my grandfather and the other men who attempted the rescue—and strolled under the massive Saturn V rocket hung from the rafters. We visited the Atlantic Shuttle, remarkably displayed indoors. I was close to tears at many points, proud of my grandfather, of the space program, of John's enduring enthusiasm for humankind's exploration of our universe.
Near the end of our day, John and I stood by Atlantis, marveling at the engineering that went into a spacecraft that could land like an airplane. Suddenly a young boy, maybe eight years old, noticed Tribes NASA badges and ran up to ask a question.
"Excuse me, mister, where are the engines?" he asked.
"Try the back," Tribe said, pointing the boy in the right direction.
I wonder if he'll ever know he was asking the man in charge of those engines, and the ones that put a man on the moon. Probably not, but he did find them, and we continued on our way.
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