Gemini was completed at a blistering pace.
It had accomplished many objectives that would
be necessary for a trip to the Moon.
Project Apollo would be the final leg of the
race that would actually reach for the
Moon. It was now 1967 and the decade was
running out. President Kennedy's goal of
reaching the Moon before the end of the decade
was in doubt.
The contractors working on the Apollo
spacecraft, the workers at NASA, and the
astronauts themselves put in many long
hours. It was a work schedule rushing
head-on into burnout and it began to take its
The first manned Apollo mission was designated
AS-204. This mission was supposed to be
the shakedown voyage for the new Apollo command
and service modules in Earth orbit.
Virgil (Gus) Ivan Grissom was designated as
Commander of AS-204. Grissom was a veteran
of two previous spaceflights. He flew both
the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft. His
Gemini mission was also the shakedown voyage for
the Gemini spacecraft.
Joining Grissom on AS-204, as Senior Pilot,
would be veteran astronaut Edward Higgins White,
II. White flew on Gemini IV and performed
the first EVA by an American astronaut.
White was one of the stronger astronauts in the
program. He needed all of his strength to
get the Gemini IV hatch closed after his EVA.
On January 22, 1967,
Gus Grissom picked a large lemon off of a tree
in his backyard. He intended to hang in on
the spacecraft to voice his opinion about the
quality of the spacecraft.
On January 27, 1967, at launch pad 34 at the
Kennedy Space Center, astronauts Grissom, White,
and Chaffee were sealed inside of their
spacecraft for a "plugs out" test. The
spacecraft was pressurized with pure
oxygen. Numerous communication problems
were encountered during the test.
Suddenly a spark occurred in the wiring of the
spacecraft somewhere below Grissom's feet. In
the pure oxygen atmosphere the fire flashed
through the spacecraft consuming anything
The crew struggled to
open the hatch of the command module. It
was a complex task that required too much
time. Before they could open the hatch,
the fumes given off from the fire asphyxiated
Astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee had
perished. They paid the ultimate
price in the race for the Moon.
Ironically, they died not in the hazardous
environment of space but rather due to an
unnecessary hazard created on the Earth.
Perhaps as a premonition Grissom wrote a
statement a few weeks before his death about the
potential loss of life in the space
program. His statement read: "There will be risks, as there are in
any experimental program, and sooner or later,
we're going to run head-on into the law of
averages and lose somebody. I hope this
never happens, and ... perhaps it never will,
but if it does, I hope the American people
won't think it's too high a price to pay for
our space program."
Apollo mission AS-204 ended in tragedy.
After concerted lobbying by the families, this
mission would later be designated as Apollo 1.