Saturday, July 21, 2012

In Quest of Imagination

"Apollo 1"
From Tom Hanks' HBO Presentation
"From the Earth to the Moon"

On July 21, 1961, Astronaut Virgil (Gus) Grissom became the second American to fly in space. His mission was suborbital, lasting only a few hours. Having been sandwiched between the inaugural American space flight of Alan Shepard, Jr., and the first American orbital flight of John Glenn, this highlight of Grissom's career might have gone largely without historical notice, except for two important and star-crossed footnotes. 

The first footnote is that Grissom lost his capsule to the sea when he landed it at the end of that 1961 mission, sparking some controversy as to whether it might have been Grissom's fault. Luckily, Grissom survived and was rescued, but the incident remained a cloud over him afterwards. 

Grissom wasn't so lucky on the fateful day in January, 1967, that he and Roger Chafee and Ed White (who coincidentally was the first man to walk in space) lost their lives in a fiery accident on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. They were killed during a training mission that would in retrospect be given the denomination Apollo 1. This clip, from Tom Hanks' outstanding HBO production, "From the Earth to the Moon," not only explains and re-enacts the accident in a rather graphic way, but it also depicts the agonizing. finger-pointing aftermath that followed the accident, in which the entire future of manned spaceflight was held precariously hostage to political debate, much like we see now, on just about every important issue. The debate over Apollo 1 eerily foreshadowed the blame game that followed the first space shuttle disaster (Challenger) in 1986, which killed 7 astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian (teacher) in space.

I have always been particularly moved by Frank Borman's conclusion that Apollo 1 accident was caused mostly by a "failure of imagination." Indeed. One could say that same thing about the Challenger disaster as well, and it might even be said about the recent Aurora shootings. When will we ever learn? One of the best things about visiting Cape Canaveral is being able to see the memorial that was erected for the crew of Apollo 1 and all the other astronauts who have sacrificed their lives in furtherance of our collective imagination. 

It would be nice if we were worthy of their sacrifice, wouldn't it?

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