January 27, 1967
I would have just finished dinner, perhaps leaving a tough bit of salisbury steak. Gone to the living room in the minutes before the 6:30 news, the TV tuned to CBS. A Friday, I knew Walter Cronkite would be offering the weekly body count from Viet Nam, a scorecard that always showed us winning. Major battles underway.
Plugs-out test. The name for the countdown demonstration test, I soon enough would learn. Spacecraft on internal power. The Apollo 204 capsule sealed for hours now. I was still more than two hours away from learning about the triple hatches, the heavy inner hatch with its six dogleg latches which required maybe a minute to ratchet open.
Right now, it was just another Friday evening, school week over. My aunt and uncle would soon be over to watch “Tarzan” at 7:30 on our new Zenith color TV.
As the announcer said, “This is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite,” Gus Grissom likely was moving in the cabin, harness unlatched, changing out a communications line, poor comm plaguing the day’s practice countdown, causing a halt in the “count” at T minus 10 minutes. Losing patience, Gruff Gus complaining, “How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three building?”
Walter Cronkite is speaking now. Just before 6:31 p.m., a power surge occurs in Main Bus B of the spacecraft’s electrical system. A signature of a short circuit.
Pure Oxygen. I’d soon learn of that, the dangers of a sealed cabin of pure oxygen. Not just sealed but pressurized above atmosphere pressure to check for air leaks. Turning Apollo 1 into a bomb. Things that don’t normally burn — “fireproof” items — blaze as if soaked in gasoline in such an atmosphere of pure oxygen.
We’re just past 6:31 p.m. now, just seconds past. The spark igniting a fire in a module at the lower left of the capsule is about to spring from its source. When it does, someone — Grissom? Ed White in the center couch? — shouts “Hey, fire!” Ed White with a kind of urgent yet calm alarm, if there is such a thing, calls, “Fire in the cockpit.” They must still have hope, beginning the emergency egress procedures. All by the book. Grissom lowering White’s headrest for him so he can reach the ratchet tool and, inserting it in a slot, begin disengaging the six latches. Roger Chaffee is the right-hand seat, turns up the cabin lights. Through flames, Grissom tries to reach the valve that would dump cabin pressure.
For the next thirty seconds, the crew fought for their lives, fought to open the hatch that could not possibly be opened at cabin pressure rose until it burst, causing a rush of flames that left the cabin filling in dense smoke.
Thirty seconds, time distended, time reaching toward the hatch. Still reaching for it.
The news continued its course toward the body count showing us winning the war in Vietnam. My aunt and uncle arrived, and we settled in to watch the novelty, for us, of color TV, bright jungle color. Ron Ely as Tarzan on NBC. After an hour, with The Man from U.N.C.L.E coming on, my aunt and uncle leave. Shortly after, the static graphic “Bulletin” interrupts. “Bulletin” the word startles us as it has each time it’s been flashed since the assassination of President Kennedy. Each time since, the bulletin has fallen short of our fears, and our breath quickly returned, cursing the networks for breaking in with what seemed so minor a thing.
Every year, for fifty years now, on January 27th, I return to that moment, mark the anniversary. Every year for fifty years, I return to that boy who was wild with space exploration as the decade inched toward the moon.
I’m twelve years old. Gus Grissom, my favorite astronaut, is dead. Ed White and Roger Chaffee are dead. I retreat to the room behind the living room, the TV still scratching for details of what they’re calling a flash fire. On a stand, in a stack of school papers, I find a recent Weekly Reader, the one that carried the crew portrait of Apollo 204
Every year on the evening of January 27th, I’m twelve years old again, trying to will Grissom, White, and Chaffee back to life.