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We Remember… Apollo 1 Astronauts White, Grissom and Chaffee

January 28, 2012

This past Friday, Jan. 27, 2012 marked a solemn milestone in the history of American space exploration: The 45th anniversary of the deaths of Virgil

Astronauts Ed White and James McDivitt at Willow Run Airport c. 1965

“Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee.

The three men were scheduled to be the first crew of the Apollo program, the name given to the NASA mission to the moon. On Jan. 27, 1967, a little more than a month before they were supposed to lift off, all three Apollo 1 astronauts perished in a fire that took place during a pre-launch test.

It was a tragedy that rocked the nation in much the same way the “Challenger” explosion would affect the American public nearly 20 years later. Similar to the fatal Space Shuttle mission, it led to widespread reforms and technological improvements in the way NASA designed its spacecraft.

Grissom was the most famous of the three as one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts who, along with John Glenn, Alan Shepard and “Deke” Slayton, NASA selected in 1959 to be among the first men in space. As it turns out, he was also the first man to fly into space twice – and, according to Slayton and others, was probably going to be on the first Apollo lunar mission in July 1969. You may remember him being portrayed by Fred Ward in the 1983 movie “The Right Stuff” – although subsequent biographers (such as Colin Burgess in “Fallen Astronauts”) have taken issue with the some of the unflattering ways both the movie and author Thomas Wolfe depict him.

So why are we posting something about these three aeronautical heroes? Because of a recent conversion job that shows at least one of those tragic heroes  – White – during happier times.

The still above and the video below come from a 47-year-old 8mm home movie shot by the family member of a Priceless Photo Preservation client. it shows White and fellow astronaut James McDivitt landing at Willow Run Airport in greater Detroit and being greeted by a crowd of excited onlookers. There is a third person in the back of the convertible with them – possibly another astronaut, but perhaps just a NASA official – yet he is not identified on the side of the car.

This probably occurred after the successful June 1965 Gemini 4 mission in which White became the first man to walk in space. McDivitt, a Michigan native and a graduate of both the University of Michigan and Kalamazoo High School, was likely getting a chance to be celebrated in his home state.

We like this slice of history because it helps us remember the bravery of the first men to fly in space – and the ultimate sacrifices some individuals, such as White, made for the betterment of mankind. Lets hope their courage leads to a bolder and brighter future.

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