50th Anniversary of the Apollo 1 Fire

Today, January 27th 2017, marks fifty years since the Apollo 1 fire took the lives of three great Americans; Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.  To mark the occasion I’ve decided to write a very brief review of Starfall by Betty Grissom the widow of Gus Grissom, and co-author Henry Still.  The book was published in 1974 saw only one printing and is now a rare collector’s item.  A quick check on showed it was listed for sale from $75 on up to $3000 for a mint copy. 

Unfortunately Starfall is rife with errors both large and small.  It stated that on Apollo 12 Richard Gordon walked on the moon while Alan Bean remained in lunar orbit.  In truth it was just the other way around.  A picture showing Gus seated in the cockpit of a T-33 states he’s in an NASA F-86.  How do I know?  The first clue was the designation “T-33” clearly panted on the side of the aircraft.   I realize that these mistakes might seem trivial to the casual reader but when a spaceflight geek such as myself runs across too many inaccuracies he begins to wonder how much of the book can be trusted.   

As to the fire, it’s well known that Gus was unhappy with the Apollo 1 spacecraft and was vocal in his concerns.  But the jaw-dropping revelation comes on page 181.  According to Betty her husband Gus was unable to control his own crew.    Chaffee and White were too busy managing their financial investments to concentrate on the upcoming Apollo 1 mission.  At this point Betty’s co-author, or her publisher, or her children, or a friend should have stepped in and told her that this discloser didn’t need to be made public.  No only did she besmirched the memories of Ed and Roger, she cast Gus in an unflattering light.  NASA had tens of thousands of employees, contractors and subcontractors to supervise.  Gus had a crew of two to oversee and apparently that was two too many.  The legacy of Apollo 1 should be simply this; after suffering a tragic setback America pressed forward and successfully landed 12 men on the moon. 

As a postscript I’d like to add that there’s no reason to believe the fire was anything other than a tragic accident but, as is the case with other national tragedies, conspiracy theorists abound.  Some individuals, including Grissom’s oldest son Scott who was a child at the time of the fire, have gone so far as to assert that NASA and North American Aviation murdered the crew of Apollo 1.  I won’t address these claims as other have already done so better than I ever could.  If you’d like more information be sure to visit Phil Plait’s excellent website Bad Astronomy.

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