Tucked into the details of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that President Trump signed into law Dec. 12 is a long overdue recognition of the first American astronauts who were lost in service to their country while practicing for a mission – a provision authorizing a memorial to the crew at Arlington National Cemetery.
Just over 50 years ago, on Jan. 27, 1967, the crew of the Apollo 1 mission – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – were killed after a fire erupted in the Apollo command module during a launch pad rehearsal of procedures for the planned first launch of an Apollo mission.
Apollo was the third crewed spacecraft built by the United States in pursuit of its effort to land a human on the moon before 1970. The program was at the high point of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and was commonly called the “Moon Race.” While overshadowed by the Vietnam War, this crew of military pilots were veterans who were fiercely committed to supporting the effort to showcase the superiority of American freedom and technology to the world.
Apollo was ultimately successful with the first lunar landing on July 20, 1969 and, while other astronauts were lost in jet trainer aircraft during the 1960s, these three were the first astronauts who died in their spacecraft while preparing for their mission.
At the time, this was a major national tragedy and the next Apollo mission was delayed by almost two years. But, since this was the first astronaut crew lost by NASA — itself an agency barely nine years old — there was no precedent for how best to honor them. After the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, a congressionally authorized memorial was placed at Arlington National Cemetery and the same was done for Space Shuttle Columbia when it was lost in 2003. While there is a memorial to the Apollo 1 crew at the base of the concrete structure that supported the pad where they died, its location in Florida at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is not usually accessible to the public except on special occasions. The crew members themselves are buried elsewhere; Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee are in Arlington Cemetery and Ed White is buried at West Point.
The 2018 National Defense Authorization provision was supported by a bipartisan group of legislators in the House and Senate. In the House, it was championed by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), along with Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.). And in the Senate, John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Bill Nelson (D-Florida) took the lead. Additional support came from the Challenger Center, a non-profit organization set up by the families of the Challenger crew that is focused on promoting Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education.
The provision authorizes the memorial but specifically does not authorize government funding. Because the legislation requires that the memorial be privately financed, AIA plans to develop a fundraising campaign to assure that the Apollo 1 crew will be appropriately memorialized near the crews from the lost shuttle missions.
It is over 50 years since the loss of the Apollo 1 crew and almost fifty years after the first crewed lunar landing. It is high time to permanently remember the mission in our national cemetery for fallen heroes; we are grateful that the Congress and the President agree.
Frank Slazer is vice president for space systems at the Aerospace Industries Associationo.