Is Gus Grissom’s widow herself about to “abandon in place” the memorial vigil she has maintained over the last 48 years since the fiery death suffered by her husband, Astronaut Commander Virgil “Gus” Grissom and fellow astronauts Roger Chaffee and Ed White back in 1967 at Pad 34 Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS)?
They were the first human martyrs of our pioneering efforts at manned space flight, occurring just as our space program was progressing toward larger missions and more complex vehicles. The flash fire that so quickly took their lives was a reminder that, despite all precautions taken to ensure safety, things can go horribly wrong. Their line of work is one of high risk, which they knew full well yet they chose to “push the envelope” as far as it was possible for them to do. They constantly reaffirmed their commitment and our nation’s commitment to the program, with Grissom himself stating “If we die, we want people to accept it…..we hope if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”
In the aftermath of the accident, there were doubts, suspicions, recriminations and bitterness expressed over what happened to the three men, but the program moved on with full support of the families. And they, in turn, were there for the families after the stunning loss of the shuttle Challenger and its crew in 1986 during launch and again in 2003 following the loss of a second shuttle, Columbia, which took another seven lives when the orbiter succumbed to damage sustained during launch and broke up on re-entry. At that time, Betty Grissom stated, “I also hope that people of all nations will put aside our differences today in a moment of silence and say something special in their own way for each of these of these astronauts and their families today.”
At this year’s memorial, it was announced in an Air Force press release that this, the 48th annual observance of the Apollo I accident, would be Mrs. Grissom’s last. Her health has been in decline in recent years and this observance saw her wheeled in by wheelchair, reflecting the toll that accumulating years have finally taken. Indeed, as the sign on Pad 34 (CCAFS) crudely and simply states “ABANDON IN PLACE”…a military directive meaning “leave as is…make no changes” and serves as a troubling metaphor for the disregard which is given to far too many people, places and things of great historical significance in this country.
How long is “long enough” to memorialize the sacrifices made by the dead. How long need a building or a battlefield be preserved to honor its role as the site of an historic event. Progress often acts as a two-edged sword, capable of slicing away the staid old practices of the past to find a new path…. a new way of thinking and getting things done better, faster, cheaper. It is a hallmark of this country and a key to its phenomenal success. In our haste to establish “a new order” and found our new nation, we nearly lost to decay and neglect the homes of our founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The other edge of the sword is our willingness to challenge the ways of the old world and build a country which declared itself to be founded “by the People, for the People and of the People” based on guaranteeing its citizens the right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. Its purpose was to protect the liberties and rights that we hold dear and to ensure Equality and Justice for all. Thus it became vital that we protect the physical existence of our founding documents, our historical buildings, halls of public record and museums, places of worship and parks to protect our natural wonders. This is what forms the character of the people of this great nation and ourselves as individuals. What we do not value, we do not protect and preserve; it becomes subject to being lost and forgotten, perhaps relegated to myth, like the Knights of the Round Table.
Sadly, in recent years, attendance to this memorial dropped off and scant attention given in the press. Only a single representative of the press was in evidence last year. Is this a general reflection of a lack of interest in our efforts at space exploration? Or is it the passing of generations and a divide of time and distance that requires us to move on with briefer and briefer glances back at these historic losses and achievements. Who will come to honor these sacrifices after Betty Grissom can no longer maintain her vigil?
Editor’s note: Despite the prior year’s announcement, Mrs. Grissom and two of her sons, returned to LC-34 for the annual memorial observance in 2015. She passed away on October 7, 2018. The annual remembrance event at the pad has continued.