House Members Seek Apollo 1 Memorial at Arlington Cemetery

House Members Seek Apollo 1 Memorial at Arlington Cemetery

Next month, the United States will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the loss of the Apollo 1 crew when fire erupted in their Apollo capsule during a pre-launch test.  More than a dozen House members led by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) want to pass legislation before Congress adjourns to establish a memorial to the crew at Arlington National Cemetery.  Memorials already exist for the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews who perished in 1986 and 2003, but not for Apollo 1. The Apollo 1 Memorial Act would fix that.

In a “dear colleague” letter yesterday, Johnson, the top Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, urged colleagues to join in co-sponsoring the bill, H.R. 6147.  It currently has 14 (11 Democrats, 3 Republicans) co-sponsors.

On January 27, 1967, the United States suffered its first space tragedy when Lt. Col. Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Lt. Col. Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died of asphyxiation after fire broke out in their Apollo Command Module during a test prior to a planned February 21 launch.  The capsule was filled with 100 percent oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure. The cause of the fire is thought to have been a spark from an electrical wire although the investigation could not conclusively identify the ignition source.   The capsule had been designed for the hatch to swing inward.  With the pressure inside the capsule greater than that outside, it was impossible for the crew to open it quickly and with fire spreading explosively in 100 percent oxygen, there was little time.  Many changes were made to the design of the Apollo capsule and to test procedures afterwards. 

Apollo 1 Crew:  Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee.  Photo Credit:  NASA

The mission was designated Apollo 204 or Apollo-Saturn 204 (AS-204), but since Grissom, White and Chaffee would have been the first Apollo crew, it was redesignated Apollo 1 in their honor.

All three men were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.  Grissom and Chaffee are buried at Arlington Cemetery; White is buried at West Point Cemetery.

H.R. 6147 directs the Secretary of the Army to construct a memorial marker to the Apollo 1 crew at an “appropriate place” in the cemetery and allocates $500,000 of money appropriated to the Army for operations and maintenance in FY2017 for that purpose.  It also allows the Administrator of NASA to accept donations for the memorial and transfer the money to the Army.  The Army oversees Arlington Cemetery.

Time is running short for the 114th Congress to pass any legislation, but Johnson and Miller hope it can be accomplished nonetheless, saying “it is surprising that we do not have a memorial at Arlington Cemetery to honor the lives of the crew of Apollo 1 as was done for the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews.  H.R. 6147 … would redress that unfortunate omission.”

Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.  Photo Credit:  Arlington National Cemetery website.


Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.  Photo Credit:  Arlington National Cemetery website.


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