It was 40 years ago yesterday that astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died in the Apollo 1 fire during a plugs-out test on the launch pad. I'll always remember when I first heard about the fire: it was on the car radio as my dad was giving me a ride home from a Boy Scout meeting, a few hours after it happened. Those brave men died because of avoidable human errors, as recounted by former launch-pad technician Stephen B. Clemmons in a recent interview.
But that's not the end of the story. It was NASA's identification and correction of those and other errors — the extensive learning derived from that awful experience — that enabled later astronauts to complete the mission instead of themselves dying on the pad or being lost in space.
If the Apollo 1 fire hadn't happened when it did and where it did — if those three astronauts had not died horrible deaths — humanity might still not have reached the moon. Who knows how the course of history might have been changed.
This is a familiar pattern. For tens of thousands of years, bad stuff, terrible stuff, has happened, all too often of our own doing. But somehow, using our gifts of memory, reason, and skill, we manage to collectively learn from our mistakes. Gradually, stumblingly, in fits and starts, we make things better than they were before. On a regular basis, this melancholy mixture of evil and learning leads to progress.
Thus we play our bit parts in the ongoing creation of the universe.
Requiescat in pacem, Grisson, White, and Chaffee.
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Here's an excerpt from the Clemmons interview; emphasis is mine.
[Interviewer:] In your opinion, would we have successfully reached the moon had Apollo 1 not occurred?
[Stephen Clemmons:] No, because there were too many things wrong, both with the spacecraft and NASA operations, which were discovered during the investigation of the fire. There were fatal errors, most hidden from view that would have surfaced if we had continued. It's very possible that we would have had a catastrophe on the ground, possibly the destruction of the Saturn V with many deaths or we could have left men on the moon and in orbit.
UPDATE: Great minds think alike: Jeff Nolan at Venture Chronicles did a similar post within minutes of this one.