fallen giants

Apollo 1 Crew, left to right, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – via NASA

Grissom, White and Chaffee. I was a seventh grader when their names became permanently etched in my mind like no other astronauts. On 27 January 1967, during a ground rehearsal inside the sealed Apollo capsule, all three died due to a flash fire in pure oxygen inside the Apollo capsule. The fire was so hot and so fast, and the original Apollo capsule so poorly designed for emergency egress, that all three astronauts died before the hatch could be opened. Over the years America would go on to loose two more astronaut crews in the pursuit of space; Shuttle Challenger on 28 January 1986 (today’s date) during launch, and Shuttle Columbia on 1 February 2003 during re-entry. I’ll write about Challenger and Columbia in a later post. It’s the uniqueness of Apollo, its successes and tragedies, I want to touch on here.

I continue to pay special attention to the Apollo astronauts, especially those who landed on the moon, because they are the most unique of a unique class of individuals. Not all of them set foot on the Moon, but enough of them did, and humanity, as well as America, is far better and greater for their achievements. They truly where the “best of the best” as some want to mockingly remark today. All three of the Apollo 1 crew weren’t just test pilots, they were accomplished engineers as well. Grissom was a mechanical engineer, and White and Chaffee were aeronautical engineers. Those men didn’t just know how to fly, they knew intimately what it was they were flying. It was that knowledge that led Grissom to rightfully criticise what he saw as defects in the original Apollo capsule, defects that no one would listen to, and that contributed to their fatalities on that fateful day. But all of that’s now 50 years in the past.

The bigger problem is that those that went on to land on the moon have now reached an age where they’re beginning to die due to natural causes. We’ve now lost both the first man to walk on the moon and the last man.

Neil Armstrong, 21 July 1969, Apollo 11 LEM, after walking on the moon.
Gene Cernan, 13 December 1972, Apollo 17 LEM – via Nasa

Neil Armstrong passed away 25 August 2012 and Gene Cernan passed away a few weeks ago on 17 January 2017. We’ve now lost, through age, both the first and the last men to walk on the moon. We’ve thrown away an entire generation of technology and men that allowed us to literally stand on the edge of limitless space. I don’t know which is the greater tragedy, Apollo 1 or what we did to the legacy of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. We could have literally planted boots on the surfaces of multiple planets other than the moon, be building a permanent presence on worlds other than earth, and pushing the boundaries of our knowledge of the universe in ways unimaginable to us now.

Instead we have Trump World and Brexit.