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U.S. moonshot began 50 years ago with a disaster

January 27, 2017 - UNITED STATES

NASA commemorates the 50th anniversary of the deaths of the pioneers of the U.S. moonshot, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The crew of Apollo 1, they perished in a flash fire in their space capsule on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The mistakes uncovered during the inquiry helped NASA to engineer safer Apollo missions on the way to the historic Moon landing of Jul 20, 1969.

The three astronauts may be honored by a new monument at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The Apollo 1 Memorial Act was introduced in Congress in Sep 2016.,

They died on Jan 27, 1967, during preflight tests at the Kennedy Space Center for the first low-orbit flight of the new Apollo command and service module. Had the flight, set for Feb 21, happened, Flight Commander Grissom would have kept the module in orbit for 14 days, six more days than was needed to reach, land on and return from the Moon. Apollo 2 and Apollo 3 had already been scheduled. Apollo missions were suspended for 20 months after the accident, with Apollo 7 finally fulfilling the goals of Apollo 1.

Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 landed astronauts on the Moon. The programme was retired with the 17th landing in Dec 1972.

The subsequent inquiry highlighted five major mistakes. Experts then and since have pointed to the Soviet Union's lead in the space race as a contributing factor. The Soviets had launched Sputnik a decade earlier and had been racking up firsts in Space. NASA raced to be first to the Moon, with lapses that contributed to the the loss of Apollo 1.

According to NASA, "the Board's investigation revealed many deficiencies in design and engineering, manufacture, and quality control. As a result of the investigation, major modifications in design, materials, and procedures were implemented."

The safety changes helped save astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission, when an oxygen tank exploded en route to the moon in Apr 1970.

The Apollo 1 anniversary marks a solemn week at NASA, falling the day before the 31st anniversary of the Challenger explosion on Jan 28, 1986, in which seven astronauts died. Four days later marks the anniversary of the Columbia shuttle breakup of Feb 1, 2003, which killed another seven-strong team.

Apollo 1 (NASA)

How many people have walked on the Moon? (Universe Today 1 Aug 2013)

Apollo Program (NASA)

Ending Apollo (Wired 22 Sep 2013)

Lawmakers Propose Memorial for Apollo 1 Astronauts at Arlington Cemetery (Space.com/Yahoo 24 Sep 2016)

Date written/update: 2016-05-11