Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Shooting for the moon

January 27, 2012 by Ray Katz


Left to right: Astronauts White, Grissom, & Chaffee - (c) NASA

This week on Florida's space coast, GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich offered his vision for an ambitious new space program–an appropriate yet carefully timed proposal delivered in the state where thousands lost their jobs after the Space Shuttle was grounded.

Growing up, the father of a friend of mine named Mr. Mendler was working at Cape Kennedy, helping NASA prepare for the first manned launch of America's new moonship, Apollo.

On the evening of January 27, 1967—45 years ago today—tradgedy struck. Shortly after 6:30pm, a fire inside the spacecraft killed the flight crew. In less than a minute, Gus Grissom (the second American in space), Ed White (the country's first space walker) and Roger Chaffee (a promising rookie) were gone and the country's manned space program was in serious danger.

Many in the federal government had doubts about the race to the moon, and the fire seemed to confirm them. This race with the Russian was expensive and dangerous. The country had other priorities and the money could be spent better elsewhere.

Prominent people, including Senator Walter Mondale (who would be his party's nominee for president in 1984) held hearings to investigate what happened. And to perhaps put and end to Apollo before more lives were lost.

NASA fought back. They sent a eloquent astronaut—Frank Borman—to the hearings. He spoke up for NASA, saying the astronauts and the agency knew the dangers and accepted them. He quoted Gus Grissom who had said that he know the dangers of space flight and believed it was worth the risk.

Apollo was allowed to continue. In 1968, Borman led the first crew to leave earth's vicinity and orbit the moon. In 1969, Apollo spacecraft sent two successful misions to the moon, beating the Russians and a deadline set by President Kennedy earlier in the decade.

By that time Mr. Mendler had moved on. He, too, knew the dangers and although he did nothing wrong and didn't contribute to the fire, he also know that working in the blockhouse on manned spaceflights meant that IF he made a mistake, people could die.

Still, he left a positive mark like 400,000 other Americans who were largely unknown and unheralded. Because he, like the more famous astronauts (and famous politicians), helped America get to the moon.

Ray Katz works in Visitor Services at the National Constitution Center. He also collects historic space memorabilia and operates a blog called The Space Buff.

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