Sacrifices on the Altar of St. John
Roy Neal, the former NBC reporter who covered NASA from the early days of Mercury through the space shuttle, once revealed that the first astronauts were all required to give an “obit” interview to be played in the event they were killed in the line of duty. The standard message went: “Exploring space is a dangerous business and lives will be lost. I am not afraid to die doing what I love, nor should my death in any way cause delays in the conquest of space.” Glenn, Cooper, Schirra and Shepard all performed the mandatory duty.
So too did Gus Grissom. Since the men were stating what they believed, the task was easy. During the first week of January 1967, Grissom reiterated those thoughts when he told a reporter: “We're in a risky business, and we hope if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. … Our Godgiven curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis only man can fully evaluate the Moon in terms understandable to other men.”1 He then went back to the preparations for the first flight of Apollo.
Despite occasional glitches, Gemini had gone well. Kennedy's goal seemed reachable, perhaps even with time to spare. The first Apollo missions, like Gemini, would test the equipment and maneuvers essential for a trip to the Moon. Apollo 1, with its crew of Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, was supposed to be the first field test of the new vehicle. It would spend two weeks in space, monitor all the functions, and then test its ability to withstand reentry. Launch was scheduled for February 21, 1967.
From the start things did not go well. Development was proceeding at the same time as training, with the result that a delay in one automatically implied a delay in the other. Contractors found it difficult keeping to NASA's rigorous schedule. Apollo was so hugely complex that the astronauts spent week after week going over the systems again and again. Grissom, White, and Chaffee, along with the backup crew of