Before the moon landing 50 years ago, 3 astronauts lost their lives

Published 12:15 pm Saturday, July 13, 2019

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the first man’s journey beyond the low earth orbit to another celestial body, we should remember the sacrifices of the Apollo 1 which was named after the tragedy.

There were three astronauts loaded in to the command module practicing for flights when a fire occurred. They were in a pure oxygen atmosphere at a pressure 2 psi above atmospheric when an ignition source caused the insulation to catch fire. With the conditions as noted, it only took seconds to cause the death of the three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

With pure oxygen at elevated pressure, anything remotely flammable will burn fiercely once there is an ignition source. With advent of the fire, the pressure was raised to 29 psi which made it almost impossible to open the hatch. The fire was so hot, it burned through the command module wall which relived the pressure, although the main rocket fuel tanks were not loaded, the escape rocket was fueled, but failed to ignite from the fire which saved many lives of those men who were trying to rescue the astronauts.

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There was a lot of flammable material in the command module including the astronauts space suits, the Velcro used to hold things in place and some of the insulation. There was a coolant of ethylene glycol, which is very flammable in pure oxygen.

These men were outstanding. The command pilot, Gus Grissom was an Indiana native born in the small town of Mitchel. He served in WWII in the Army Air Corps and then after he graduated from Purdue University, he joined the newly-formed Air Force and was able to become a pilot and flew an 86F jet fighter for 100 missions in the Korean War. He trained as an astronaut and became the second U.S. astronaut to fly in space.

Ed White was a Texan and graduated from West Point. He later graduated from University of Michigan with a master in aeronautical engineering. He was a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. As a pilot in the Gemini 4 project and the first U.S. man to walk in space.

Roger Chaffee was native of Michigan with a barn storming father. He started his college education at Illinois Tech, but transferred to Purdue where he graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering. After astronaut training, this would have been his first trip into space.

Great news, the Lawrence County airport is open again.

On Wednesday, I inspected it and I was impressed. The runway lights are in place and I understand they will be controlled by a transmitted signal from arriving planes. If they work the way that I have seen at other airports, when you key your mike five times, they will turn or and will increase in intensity with the next one or two clicks.

This runway is by far the best that has ever been on this airport. This is even better than the WPA could do back in the 1930s. It was reworked down 12 inches and that was made concrete followed by four inches of asphalt. It is beautiful. I am eager to flew out again.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at