Apollo 1 Crew Finally Memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery

Apollo 1 Crew Finally Memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery

The crew of the first Apollo mission, who perished more than 55 years ago, finally have their own memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and others dedicated the Apollo 1 monument on June 2.

Virgil “Gus” Grissom, a veteran of two spaceflights (Mercury-Redstone 4, Gemini 3), Ed White, the first American to make a spacewalk (Gemini 4), and rookie Roger Chaffee died on January 27, 1967 when a fire erupted in the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere of their Apollo spacecraft during a pre-launch test at Kennedy Space Center, FL. They would have been the first crew to launch into space aboard an Apollo spacecraft.

Apollo 1 astronauts (L-R) Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Photo credit: NASA

They were the first of three NASA space crews to lose their lives. Memorials were established at Arlington National Cemetery for the crews of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger and 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedies, but not for Apollo 1 even though Grissom and Chaffee are buried there. White is buried at West Point.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) led an effort in Congress to direct the Secretary of the Army, who oversees the cemetery, in consultation with NASA to create a memorial for them. She finally succeeded in the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

News of the dedication ceremony came on June 2 via images tweeted by NASA. Administrator Bill Nelson, family members of the crew, Lance Bush, President and CEO of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, and Eric Fanning, President of the Aerospace Industries Association and a former Secretary of the Army, were among those at the event.

Apollo 1 monument at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls at the dedication ceremony June 2, 2022.
Lowell Grissom, brother of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson at the dedication of the Apollo 1 monument at Arlington National Cemetery, June 2, 2022. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and members of Ed White’s family at dedication of Apollo 1 monument at Arlington National Cemetery June 2, 2022. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Chaffee’s daughter, Sheryl, was 8 when her father died. She grew up to spend a 33-year career at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. She gave a moving tribute in 2017 at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the accident and talked about her own efforts over the years to make sure they were not forgotten. She was at the dedication and offered remarks along with Grissom’s brother, Lowell Grissom.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and members of Roger Chaffee’s family at the dedication of the Apollo 1 monument, Arlington National Cemetery, June 2, 2022. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

In a statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com on June 3, Rep. Johnson, chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said:

“I am thrilled that the Apollo 1 Memorial to honor astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee is finally a reality.  It took the efforts of many individuals, and I was pleased to be able to help get the legislation authorizing it enacted into law.  The Apollo 1 Memorial is a fitting tribute to these American heroes and the sacrifice they made to advance space exploration, and I look forward to visiting it in person.”

The Apollo 1 monument is located in Section 3 of the cemetery close to the graves of Grissom and Chaffee.The memorials to the Columbia and Challenger crews are in Section 46, about a 10 minute walk away.

Map of Arlington National Cemetery and surrounding area. Credit: ANC.

The monument is sponsored by the Challenger Center, a K-12 STEM education non-profit created by the families of the Challenger astronauts, and AIA.

L-R: Eric Fanning, President and CEO, Aerospace Industries Association; Lance Bush, President and CEO, The Challenger Center, and Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator, at the dedication of the Apollo 1 monument, Arlington National Cemetery, June 2, 2022. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

In a joint press release on June 3, Fanning and Bush said they worked with the crew’s families, NASA and the space industry to create the memorial, which was fully funded by private donations including from Aerojet Rocketdyne, the Aerospace Corporation, Boeing, Leidos, L3Harris, Lockheed Martin, Marotta Controls, and Northrop Grumman.

Fanning said the memorial serves “as a reminder of the sacrifices astronauts and their families have made in our pursuit of the new frontier of space.” Bush added that it “ensures that the public recognizes the Apollo 1 crew as integral to the success of the Apollo program and the continued exploration of space for the benefit of humanity.”

In an interview today, Bush recounted the more than 6-year journey that led to the dedication. In 2015, he and two colleagues from AIA, Frank Slazer and Ed Goldstein, decided it was long past time for the Apollo 1 crew to have a memorial at ANC. What they needed was permission from the Apollo 1 families, help from Congress to pass a law similar to those for the Challenger and Columbia crew memorials, and funding. As President of the Challenger Center, Bush had come to know the Apollo 1 families. They were enthusiastic. He and AIA worked with Rep. Johnson and her staff and many other members of Congress to get the provision in the FY2018 NDAA, but it did not provide any funding. For that, AIA reached out to its members.

Why did it take so long? The process of getting a monument approved at ANC is arduous even when everyone agrees it’s a splendid idea, Bush continued. Even the distinction between a “monument” and a “memorial” makes a big difference. Technically the Apollo 1 marker is a monument not a memorial because no human remains are buried under it, which affects decisions on its size, shape, and where it can be located. In this case, because it is a monument it can be placed under a tree, whereas remains cannot be buried under a tree so memorials cannot be placed there. ANC made the decision to place it near the Grissom and Chaffee graves. The cemetery is running out of room and the area close to the Columbia and Challenger memorials has little left, but a small tree is near the Grissom and Chaffee gravesites and since it cannot be used for a memorial, it’s perfect for a monument. The site is also located at a major intersection within the cemetery making it easy to find and visit.

The monument was actually installed in mid-December, but the roads in that part of the cemetery are under repair and were impassable during the winter. They are still in poor condition as can be seen in the photos. That led to the delay in the dedication ceremony and Bush said even the number of people allowed at the site was limited to the families and a few others. A larger group participated in the reception at the Military Women’s Memorial.

As the monument’s sponsors, AIA and Challenger Center are responsible not just for design, construction, and installation, but upkeep. Bush estimated the cost so far is about $35,000. The upkeep is only for the monument itself, not the surrounding area, so should be minimal.

Bush said the smiles on the faces of the Apollo 1 families made it all worthwhile.

On June 4, CBS aired a segment about the monument and its history, showing video footage and photos of the crew, including a clip from a CBS interview with Gus Grissom days before the fire. CBS reporter Kris Van Cleave also interviewed Bush and three of the family members — Lowell Grissom, Ed White’s daughter Bonnie, and Sheryl Chaffee — about the importance of the monument.


This article was originally published on June 2, updated on June 3 with quotes from the press release and the interview with Bush, and on June 4 with the link to the CBS Mornings segment.

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