Boomers Witnessed Apollo 1’s Fateful Mission

January 31 is designated as an Annual Day of Remembrance for the brave men and women who lost their lives in the pursuit of space exploration and discovery. This year marks a fateful anniversary in that regard, as fifty years ago this week three astronauts lost their lives in a preflight fire aboard Apollo 1 (NASA titled AS-204).

Scheduled to launch on February 21, 1967, Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee were to be the first crewed flight of the Apollo missions that would eventually take us to the moon.

This was to be Roger Chaffee’s first space flight. The other two, however, were veterans of the Space Program. Virgil “Gus” Grissom reached space in July 1961 aboard the Liberty Bell 7 capsule in the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission. After a 15 and half-minute suborbital flight, his space capsule sank in the ocean on reentry. Grissom was quickly retrieved by the US Navy. Edward White became the first American to perform a spacewalk in June 1965. He was one of two astronauts aboard Gemini 4. Pilot James McDivitt and White spent four days in space, on only the tenth manned spaceflight launched by the US.

On January 27, 1967, the Apollo astronauts suited up for a planned preflight test of systems in the Command Module, which was in place on top of the Saturn rocket (AS-204) at the launch site. At around 6:31 p.m. EST, the crew reported a fire inside their module. From the subsequent investigation and report to Congress, we know that a voltage surge was recorded around one minute before the fire was reported. The fire began beneath the Senior Pilot’s couch and spread through channels that were designed to deflect debris away from the astronauts during flight. It quickly surged through the Command Module, which contained 100 percent oxygen, consuming flammable materials and wiring and filling it with smoke. Pressure built inside the module with the heat from the fire, making it exceedingly difficult to open the inside of the two-layer hatch since it opened inward. The crew on the platform outside could not see the astronauts through the viewing window due to the smoke, and were not able to approach the capsule in time due to the heat. All indications pointed to the Apollo crew and platform personnel following procedures, but in less than twenty minutes, the crew was officially reported dead.

As a result, NASA grounded all flights while an investigation was conducted. It was to be nearly a year before the next launch, which was a severe setback in the middle of the Space Race. President Kennedy’s goal of getting a crew to the moon and back within the decade seemingly became an impossible mission.

In our day and age, it seems unbelievable that there wasn’t a system in place to handle such contingencies as an onboard fire before the spacecraft was launched. However, we need to remind ourselves that putting people into space was a completely new thing, and virtually every aspect had to be developed as the Space Program progressed. As a result of the investigation, NASA initiated major design and engineering changes before the first Apollo flight was launched. Among these changes were:

• An outward-opening hatch
• Mix of oxygen and nitrogen in the module
• Fireproof storage containers
• Protective covering over wiring and flameproof coating on wire connections
• Plastic switches were replaced with metal
• Emergency oxygen system to isolate crew from cabin emergencies
• Fire extinguishers onboard and on the launch platform

The deaths of Grissom, White and Chaffee hit the country — and boomers — hard. For boomers like Mister B who followed the Space Program through every mission, it was a devastating blow, like a member of the family had passed away. Mister Boomer recalls seeing pictures of the damaged module in Life magazine, along with photos of a subsequent zipline escape system installed on the launch towers. Though it was a severe setback for the Space Program, after NASA presented their findings and intentions for modifications to Congress in April of 1967, there weren’t many people ready to give up on achieving President Kennedy’s challenge that he made only six years earlier.

Do you recall hearing the awful news of the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts from the first TV and radio reports, boomers?

Boomer Icons Who Passed On in 2016

2016 was a tough year for boomers. We lost a massive number of historical and cultural giants that helped shaped our boomer years. Here are just some of this illustrious group:

Leonard White – January 2
As a television producer, Mr. White brought boomers the now-classic TV spy series, The Avengers.

Robert Balser – January 5
His name was hardly a boomer household word, yet boomers know his work. Balser was an animator who co-directed Yellow Submarine (along with Jack Stokes, who died in 2013). He also worked on the cartoon series Jackson5 and the animated movie Heavy Metal.

David Bowie – January 10
A colossus among boomer-era rock musicians, Bowie was ever inventing and showing us another side of his collection of talents, from singing to song writing, acting to producing, ever the supreme showman. Here is what Mister Boomer had to say about one of his recordings: “Wild Is the Wind”: A Boomer Story.

Glenn Frey – January 18
Frey, a boomer himself, was the founding member of the Eagles. The band’s southwestern-rock style was present in multiple hits in the 1970s, making them a favorite of many later-era boomers.

Paul Kantner – January 28
In 1965 Marty Balin approached Paul Kantner to join his new band, the Jefferson Airplane. The band, fronted by lead singer Grace Slick, went on to become a symbol of the psychedelic scene in San Francisco during the Summer of Love with the blockbuster boomer hits of Somebody to Love and White Rabbit. Kantner wrote music himself, but the closest he had to a hit was the song Wooden Ships, which he co-wrote with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. After the dissolution of the band, Kantner formed Jefferson Starship. Mister Boomer was not a big fan of Starship, but thoroughly enjoys Airplane to this day including Today, a Kantner-penned song featured on the Surrealistic Pillow album from 1967.

Maurice White – February 3
The co-founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, White was the band’s lead singer. He also co-wrote many of their hits, including September, Sing A Song and Shining Star. In the dark days of disco (in Mister B’s estimation), Mister B would request Earth, Wind & Fire songs from the DJs to avoid having to hear disco music.

Harper Lee – February 19
Boomers will recall Lee as the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, a novel about race and class in the Depression-era South. In 1962 it was made into a motion picture starring Gregory Peck. Many early boomers read the book in school, but most boomers saw the film at some point in their developing years.

Nancy Reagan – March 6
Born Anne Frances Robbins, Nancy Reagan was a film actress before boomers knew her as Ronald Reagan’s wife and America’s First Lady. She was an influential figure in Reagan’s White House, and boomers will recall her role in creating the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.

Keith Emerson – March 11; Greg Lake – December 7
Two-thirds of the iconic group, Emerson, Lake and Palmer died this past year. Emerson was the founding member and keyboardist of ELP and before that, the Nice, which also featured a blending of rock, jazz and classical music. Bassist Greg Lake met Emerson while the Nice was touring with King Crimson. Together they formed ELP, and recruited Carl Palmer on drums. Their first record was released in 1970. Mister Boomer was a big fan of music that fused other genres, especially jazz and classical.

Patty Duke – March 29
Boomers will always remember Patty Duke for her Academy-Award winning performance in The Miracle Worker, and, of course, for the television series that bore her name. Read Mister Boomer’s take on the show: Boomers, Now Isn’t That Special (Effects)?

Prince – April 21
Prince Rogers Nelson was himself a Baby Boomer, having been born in 1958. A musician, songwriter and musical innovator, he burst onto the music scene in 1976, influencing countless legions of musicians who followed.

Muhammad Ali – June 3
Boomers first knew him as Cassius Clay, a boxer of immense talent who became the Heavyweight World Champion, but was willing to give it all up by declaring his conscientious objector status for the Draft in 1967. He took the name Muhammad Ali in 1964. Boomers will always remember and respect him for his support of the Civil Rights movement and anti-war stance, aside from his being “the Greatest” in the boxing ring.

Margaret Vinci Heldt – June 10
The world will remember Margaret Vinci Heldt for giving us the Beehive hairdo. Read Mister Boomer’s exploration: Boomers Say a Fond Goodbye to More Icons of the Era

Glenn Yarbrough – August 11
Yarbrough began his musical career as lead singer for the Limeliters (1959-63), but most boomers will always remember his classic hit, Baby the Rain Must Fall, from 1965.

Gene Wilder – August 29
Like most boomers, Mister B first heard of Gene Wilder from his starring roles in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles and two of Mister B’s favorites, Young Frankenstein and The Producers. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Wilder did a series of films with Richard Pryor that are beloved by later boomers, including Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. He married Gilda Radner, one of the original cast members from Saturday Night Live, in 1984.

Edward Albee – September 16
This American playwright brought us Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which ultimately became a boomer cultural phenomenon as a film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Arnold Palmer – September 25
Considered one of the greatest professional golfers who ever lived, most boomers will recall their fathers sitting in front of the TV on weekends in the 1950s and ’60s, a beer in the hand while watching Arnold Palmer on the PGA circuit. Arnold Palmer also gave us the drink that bears his name, a mix of lemonade and iced tea.

Tom Hayden – October 23
Boomers will recall Hayden as the radical founding member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s. Known for his activism in Civil Rights and against the war in Vietnam, he went on to marry Jane Fonda and from 1993 to 200 served in the California state legislature, first as an assemblyman, then as state senator.

Robert Vaughn – November 11
Best known to boomers for his starring role in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., this actor became part of the pop culture landscape.

Florence Henderson – November 24
Ms. Henderson had appeared in numerous movies and TV shows as both an actress and singer during our younger years, but most boomers will always remember her as the mom on The Brady Bunch.

John Glenn – December 8
One of the original seven U.S. astronauts, boomers watched as he became the first American to orbit the Earth (1962). In 1974 he became a U.S. Senator, representing his home state of Ohio, where he served for 24 years. In 1998, at age 77, he became the oldest man to travel to space, going up a second time with the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery. After John Glenn, Mister B and his teammates on a city league baseball team called themselves The Astronauts.

Henry Heimlich – December 17
If his name sounds familiar, it’s because we boomers were around before Dr. Heimlich came up with the life-saving maneuver that bears his name. Boomers saw the adoption of the method for helping choking victims and the signs posted at every restaurant and government building.

Carrie Fisher – December 27
What else can be said about Carrie Fisher? Boomers knew her for Star Wars, of course, but also as the once-wife of Paul Simon.

There were many others who passed on this past year, of course, who made their mark in the annals of boomer history. We have, as the old saying goes, lived in interesting times.

Which boomer icons will you remember, boomers?