NINE

“I’ve got a fire in the cockpit!”

Gus Grissom stepped out of his door, stopping long enough to study the lemon tree in his backyard. “Ah, there’s a nice one,” he smiled, reaching for the fat citrus hanging about eye level. He wiped the large lemon across his shirt. “I have a new home for you, baby,” he laughed as he turned, walked around the house to his ’Vette. He slid into the seat and backed the sports car out of the driveway. His hand fit comfortably around the shift grip, as he moved smoothly through the gears. His ’Vette purred down the asphalt. His speed was about ten miles over the limit, just where he liked it. Just enough for an early-morning piss-off of the traffic cops trying to down their fourth doughnut.

Gus reminded himself this was most likely the only fun he would have all day—behind the wheel of his ’Vette, with his thoughts taking him back to the good times he and Alan and Gordo had had in the drags at the Cape.

He smiled. They were the good times for sure, but none were better than that one particular late night. That time he’d headed back to the motel in the wee hours when he was backing up Shepard before the first flight.

He had his ’Vette on a deserted U.S. 1, where his speed of 100-plus was sweet. He was dodging an armadillo when he picked up a Florida highway patrol. There was only one thing to do: put the pedal to the metal. He made a high-speed turn onto the 520 Causeway and raced for Cocoa Beach. A sheriff’s deputy felt he should join the highway patrol in the chase. The two were doing their best to wake up the entire spacecoast with their screaming sirens when Gus sped through his turn onto A1A. The hot pursuit was joined by a third man—a Cocoa Beach cop. Grissom stomped his accelerator to the floor and his Jim Rathmann–prepared ’Vette left the long arm of the law hopelessly behind.

Gus made a wide seventy-mile-per-hour turn into the Holiday Inn, where he found his luck holding. The parking slot in front of Alan Shepard’s room was open, and Gus slid his ’Vette between the lines. He ran quickly into his own room two doors away, shedding his clothes in the dark as flashing lights and howling sirens pulled up outside. He slipped into his pajamas and peeked around the curtains to see the sheriff’s deputy and the highway patrolman arguing. They were putting their hands on the hood of Gus’s ’Vette, feeling the heat coming through the fiberglass. “This is the room,” they announced, and began pounding on a sleeping Alan Shepard’s door.

When Shepard opened it, all three grabbed him and threw him to the concrete, with handcuffs locking in place around his wrists. A sleepy Alan Shepard found himself trying to explain to “never-listen traffic cops” when the pajama-clad Grissom opened his door and yelled, “Hey guys, can’t you keep it down out there? Some of us have to go to work in a couple of hours!”

Gus laughed, remembering that Alan’s forgiveness was slow coming with the promise he’d get even. He was still expecting payback from the chief astronaut.

Gus loved his buddy, but Alan’s appetite for fun had evaporated since Deke put him in the chief’s job. He was no longer the easygoing test pilot since his grounding from his inner-ear problem. Flying a desk here in Houston, he seemed to be “hot wired on pissed off,” with the incredible ability to switch moods at will. Alan could be hell on wheels in the morning and his old charming self in the afternoon.

Gus and the others were baffled as how to deal with him until Alan’s secretary, Gaye Alford, hit on a unique idea.

Each morning she would determine Alan’s mood and select one of two pictures she had mounted back to back in a single frame. She had hung the picture on the wall outside Alan’s office door. An astronaut being called before the chief would either see a photo of a scowling Alan Shepard or Gaye would flip it over to the one of him with a beaming smile.

Gus laughed. Those who walked past the scowl did so at their own risk.

It was good to laugh and to remember, even if it was for only a few minutes on the road. Gus was headed to the Apollo flight-simulator building. As he had for Gemini, Deke had given him the commander’s seat for the first Apollo, and he wasn’t at all pleased with the mission’s progress. Nothing seem to be working, and his wrath this day was focused on the flight simulator and on the operator charged with making sure the machine would fly as if it were Apollo 1 itself. The man on the hot seat was Riley McCafferty. He braced himself as Gus walked through the door.

“Let’s see if this thing will fly, Riley,” Gus said as he climbed inside with his crew, astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Only a few minutes of the simulation had passed when the Apollo 1 commander began fuming. The simulator differed in so many significant ways from the actual spacecraft that Gus felt the machine was a waste of time.

“Damn it, Riley,” Grissom shouted, “this simulator is worthless! Why isn’t it up to speed?”

The defensive simulator operator explained that engineers had made hundreds of changes to the actual spacecraft and it took time…

“Bullshit,” Grissom interrupted. “It’s a piece of crap, Riley. Get it right and we’ll be back.”

Before leaving, Gus Grissom reached in his briefcase and brought out the fat lemon from his yard. He hung it tightly on the simulator’s hatch. “Leave it there,” he ordered, walking away from the sounds of polite laughter.

Despite Gus and his crewmates’ problems, Apollo was coming. So were the big network stars. Huntley, Brinkley, and Cronkite wanted to be part of man’s first landing on the moon, and so did their New York handlers. The lunar landings were being sold to such big advertisers as Gulf Oil, and these corporate giants wanted to see Chet Huntley and David Brinkley sitting on camera in front of their logo.

Many have asked me if it didn’t piss me off to spoon-feed information to the New York stars. My answer was simple. Hell, no! That was my job. A person from my background had a slim-to-none chance of getting on national television, and I was damn happy to be the exception to the rule.

I was grateful, and more important, I knew my limitations. How could I not be pleased living and working in paradise? I had long ago recognized a solid fact: I did not have the background to be a Chet Huntley or a Walter Cronkite, and I simply did not want to be. NBC was very fair. I not only had been blessed with a wonderful wife and children, I had a job that was one of the most exciting in the country, and I had cultivated solid sources. They were filling me in on all the bits and pieces of Apollo, including the growing tension between Gus Grissom and the Apollo managers. And I was aware of another fact: No outside reporter could compete with me on my turf.

The Apollo astronauts were in their jets commuting almost daily between their homes in Houston and the Cape, and that evening Gus was at Wolfie’s Nightclub in Cocoa Beach. The club featured a popular folk singer named Trish, and Gus loved to hear her sing. When I walked in he invited me to pull up a chair. “We need to talk,” he said quietly.

I nodded and sat down. I could see he was troubled.

Over Trish’s mellow vocals he slowly began. “Jay, we need your help.”

“You got it, Gus.”

“Apollo is a piece of crap,” he said flatly. “It may never fly. We have problems and they’re not getting solved. It’s nothing like Mercury and Gemini and working with the Mac folks in St. Louis.” He shifted in his chair. “Hell, these California guys in Downey haven’t a clue. They’ve got their big fat contract and no know-how.” He paused again, leaning closer. “You guys in the press, well, shit Jay, you guys have to help us. Apollo is not ready.”

I nodded, knowing I was listening to the most engineering-savvy astronaut in NASA. “I’ll do what I can, Gus,” I smiled promisingly. “What do you think is behind it?”

“The White House,” he said soberly. “The White House is pushing.”

“Pushing?”

“Damn right,” Gus nodded. “It’s all about the reelection. LBJ would like to see us on the moon before the polls open in ’68.”

“He needs the help because of Vietnam?”

“You got it,” Gus said, pulling his chair even closer. “Johnson gave Apollo to his buddies instead of the guys with the experience and now he’s damn well wanting miracles that ain’t there. They’re rushing production and we need time, Jay, we need time.”

“I’ll get on it, Gus,” I promised. “I’ll get on it.”

He nodded a thank-you and moved his chair back, still troubled. Trish finished her set and joined us, and we ended the conversation with a handshake.

Gus enjoyed Trish’s company and her singing, but despite what some thought, there was nothing going on between the two except friendship. Trish and I were good friends, as we still are today, and I knew she was involved with an astronaut, but he wasn’t Gus Grissom. There were lots of stories in those days about the astronauts and women, but for the most part they were just that: stories.

In one case, a sleazy private investigator had offered NBC an audiotape for a price. It supposedly was a recording of an astronaut in bed with a woman other than his wife. I asked him to leave the tape with me, telling him I needed to play it for my boss in New York. No sooner than he’d left the NBC bureau, I erased it, and called him with a “We’ll pass.”

Later, I learned he didn’t have a copy and my bosses, Russ Tornabene and Jim Holten, joined me for a good laugh.

In the coming days, I questioned Apollo managers often and regularly. I wanted to know why they weren’t addressing problems that had been brought to my attention. I wanted to know why they were in such an all-fired hurry to launch in late 1967 or early 1968. John Kennedy had set the launch for before the decade was out. Why didn’t they take their time? Was beating the Russians more important than astronauts’ lives? But the news media then weren’t as aggressive as they are today. This was six years before Watergate, and no matter how many times I raised Gus’s complaints with colleagues, most reporters gave his concerns short shrift.

One exception was my friend Howard Benedict of the Associated Press. I briefed Howard and we both stayed on top of Gus’s worries, nipping at the heels of Apollo’s movers and shakers.

Howard had come to the Cape a year after I did—only a few years out of Tokyo, where he’d worked with my boss Russ Tornabene on the army’s newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. This sort of made us family, and he and I became tight. We spent three decades leading the pack and watching each other’s backs. Damn, I miss him! Howard was the kind of close friend you hated to see leave this world ahead of you.

I kept trying to get NBC to do more stories on the problems with the Apollo. The Today Show passed on a story, and Huntley-Brinkley turned it over to one of their favorites. He kissed off Gus’s concerns while I did what I could on the NBC Radio Network. The press and public ignored the whole damn thing, and the first Apollo labeled “flight worthy” was stacked atop its Saturn 1B rocket. The launch team prepared for the one launch-pad test considered essential. Called a “plugs out” test, it was a complete shakedown of the spacecraft’s ability to fly safely—a countdown simulation with 100 percent oxygen and fully suited astronauts sealed inside. The space agency posted Friday, January 27, for this “full dress rehearsal.”

Neither Howard Benedict nor myself felt easy. NASA refused us permission to cover the test, and just before Gus slipped feet first into Apollo 1, his backup, Wally Schirra, stopped him. Wally hated that damn hatch. He had been arguing all along that it should have been built with a quick-opening explosive mechanism that operated instantly, like those in Mercury. To Wally, Apollo 1’s hatch was fashioned from overtime stupidity. It was double-hulled. It had to be opened manually, and to escape in an emergency it was necessary to open both hulls and then release a third hatch protecting Apollo during liftoff. Engineers had designed it that way to avoid an accidental loss of the hatch en route to the moon or during the punishing reentry, when Apollo would come blazing back to Earth at more than 24,000 miles per hour.

Veteran astronaut Gus Grissom suits up for the Apollo launch-pad test that would end his life. (NASA).

“Listen to me, Gus,” Wally told his friend. “It’ll take you a minute and a half, possibly two, to get all those hatches open. If you have a problem, even if your fucking nose itches, get the hell out. Make sure they solve the problem before you get back in. Got it?”

“Got it,” Gus nodded and smiled. “Thanks, buddy.”

“We’re ready to get with the count.” That from the blockhouse speakers told every person connected with the rehearsal to get with it.

The lights flashed, the clocks ticked, and the countdown moved through the “plugs out” test—meaning Apollo and the Saturn would stand alone, would operate on their own internal power, with no help from outside.

The launch team was verifying that everything, except fueling and actual launching, would work in a symphony.

The three astronauts, in their full spacesuits and strapped inside Apollo 1, were following the script. Gus Grissom was in the left seat, Ed White in the center, and Roger Chafee on the right.

No one saw it; no one knew just when it came to life.

Somewhere beneath the seat of commander Gus Grissom, an open wire chafed. Insulation was worn and torn. The wire, alive with electrical power, lay bare in a thick soup of 100 percent oxygen—one of the most dangerous and corrosive gases known. Exposed to an ignition source, it is extremely flammable. It had been used in the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft without trouble.

But this much pure oxygen inside a ship as large as Apollo was another story.

Gus Grissom shifted his body for comfort.

His seat moved the bare wire.

It sparked.

INSTANT FIRE!

Flames filled Apollo 1, feeding on the oxygen-soaked materials surrounding the astronauts.

The launch team froze before its television monitors. Muscles stiffened; voices in the blockhouse ceased in mid-sentence. No one knew what he or she was witnessing. It was something horrifying and unbelievable. Flames rampaging inside Apollo 1—a whirlwind of fire raging and burning everything it touched.

The medical readings showed Ed White’s pulse rate jump off the charts—showed the three astronauts burst into instant movement.

The first call from Apollo 1 smashed into the launch team’s headsets.

“Fire!”

One word from Ed White.

Then, the unmistakable deep voice of Gus Grissom.

“I’ve got a fire in the cockpit!”

Instantly afterward, Roger Chaffee’s voice:

“Fire!”

Then a garbled transmission, and then the final plea:

“Get us out!”

Then words no one would ever understand, followed by a scream and—

Silence.

In the blockhouse, Deke Slayton jumped from his chair, shouting, “What the hell’s happening?”

Eyes stared in horror at the monitors. Flames expanded swiftly, building to a white glare before subsiding, and Deke thought he saw a shadow moving inside. He couldn’t be sure, but then he saw bright orange flames flickering about Apollo 1’s hatch.

Hellish flames followed by thick smoke boiling outward.

An icy chill moved over his skin. Those calls of fire, that final garbled scream—they had come from inside Apollo 1.

Pad crews were rushing to the scene, trying to get to Gus, Ed, and Roger, while astronaut Stuart Roosa on the blockhouse console was trying frantically to talk with them. Again and again he called, desperate, his face chalk white.

No response.

Then, there was a shout from the pad over the radio loop: “Get a doctor out here, quick!”

Deke heard that! You don’t need a doctor for dead men. It was a glimmer, just a small hope. He grabbed two doctors standing nearby, and they headed for the blockhouse door.

Deke lived a lifetime in that mad run to the launch pad. He and Gus had been fishing and hunting buddies for years. They had flown everywhere together, and when it came to astronaut training, Gus had saved his ass during a water-rescue drill. Deke had fallen off his raft, and because he’d never really learned to swim, he almost drowned. But there was Gus, who could swim like a frog, and Gus saved him.

“Hang in there, buddy!” Deke shouted inside his head.

They reached the gantry, rode the elevator to level 8, and rushed into the White Room. The hatch was already open.

The doctors leaned in, studied the scene, and then pulled away slowly.

One turned to Deke. “They’re gone,” he said, shaking his head.

Deke held his position. Just for a moment. Gus was in there. He had to see for himself. He stepped over and leaned inside the hatch. It was all burnt. Everything was black ash. It was a death chamber. Ed White was on the bottom and Gus and Roger were crumpled on top of him. “They were clawing at those goddamn hatches,” Deke cursed. “They were trying to get out,” he shouted. “Damn it, they were trying to get out!” He caught himself. He was about to lose it. Then he saw it. Their suits! Their suits had protected them from the flames. None of them had burns. “It was all that goddamn crap they were breathing,” Deke cursed again. “It killed them, damn it. The fire sucked the oxygen right out of their lungs.”

Deke caught himself again. He paused, took a breath. Slowly he was putting things back together, gathering his thoughts.

Suddenly and strangely, he was thankful. He was realizing how quick death had been. He reached down and touched Gus’s gloved hand. “You didn’t suffer, buddy,” he choked back the words. “Thank God you guys didn’t suffer.” Then, Deke Slayton walked into the darkness and cried.

The tears flowed for five, perhaps ten minutes; Deke wasn’t sure. He could only stand there and hurt, and when the tears were slowing he turned once again to the blackened Apollo. “This won’t happen again, guys,” he promised the fallen astronauts. “It won’t happen again.”

Within hours after the Apollo 1 fire, Gus, Ed, and Roger were being remembered in America’s homes. In the home of Frank Sinatra, the memories were recent and special. Ten days before the astronauts died in the fire, they were flying to the Apollo plant in California hoping to get some training time in an up-to-date simulator. They ran into problems with one of their T–38 jets and had to land at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas. While the jet’s problems were being fixed, they decided to take in a show.

Frank Sinatra was on stage, and no sooner than they sat down, Frank had them brought up front. They were wearing their astronaut flight jackets, and Old Blue Eyes took a shine to Gus’s jacket. He was especially impressed with Grissom’s mission patches.

Gus grinned. He stood up, removed his jacket, and gave it to Frank. Sinatra was so moved he cried before his audience. Ten days later, he cried even more.

When Apollo 1 burned I was on my way to the Bahamas to cover a news conference by New York City congressman Adam Clayton Powell. The NBC news desk immediately rushed me back to the Cape, where I found reporting difficult. I kept wishing I had done more. Just what more, I have never fairly identified.

Gus Grissom was laid to rest at Arlington. Rifle volleys split the air, a bugler sounded mournful taps, and jet fighter pilots roared overhead in a final salute. In uniform, the remaining six Mercury astronauts stood solid, at attention. They had been seven, the Mercury Seven. Tragedy had removed one from their proud number.

Later that day, there was again the salute, the bugler’s stirring taps, and the thunder of jet fighters as Roger Chaffee went to rest at Grissom’s side.

On the same afternoon, on a bluff overlooking his beloved West Point, Ed White went to his final destination.

It was over.

And as Deke promised Gus, Ed, and Roger, it never happened again on his watch.

There was a new beginning.

The Apollo 1 fire sent red flags sailing through the space agency and its contractors with one question: Why? NASA boss James Webb gave the job of answering that question to Floyd L. Thompson, director of the Langley Research Center in Virginia. He ordered Thompson to set up a board of review: “Find out what the hell really happened, Floyd, and get back to me as soon as possible.” Thompson nodded and brought in some of the toughest investigators and specialists on the planet. Among them was Frank Borman, who had commanded the two-week Gemini 7 flight. Together, they assembled a team of fifteen hundred men and women to trace every inch Apollo 1 had traveled in its construction, its movements from hangar to hangar, and its tests on its launch pad.

They looked at thousands of dials and switches and transistors and electrical connections, and then they built an exact copy of Apollo 1 and set it ablaze. The test badly shook many who could not study the results until the next day. Some went home and stared at the walls.

From the outset, heads rolled in the top reaches of executive suites. The search for incompetence didn’t have far to go. It was right in front of the investigators’ eyes.

By summer’s end 1967, NASA’s George Page, a veteran of the Mercury and Gemini flights, could swallow no more. He was sick of all the politicos’ posturing, stabbing fingers into the air, declaring their innocence while demanding something be done. The problems, Page knew, would be solved at the grunt level, with the techs and engineers pulling wire and turning wrenches, if only the suits in Washington would give them the time.

Page was one of NASA’s best managers and he knew who could make the trains run on time. He phoned an old friend. T. J. O’Malley was in Quincy, Massachusetts, working for General Dynamics’ electric boat division.

“T. J., this is George.”

“Hello there, Mister Page,” O’Malley smiled down the line. “How’s everything at the Cape?”

“A mess,” George said flatly. “No, let’s make that a goddamn mess.”

“How many asses have you hanged for that fire?”

“Not enough,” George said. “If we hanged all those we should, we’d run out of rope.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Yep, T. J., it’s that bad.” He paused. “We need you, old friend. We need you.”

“Well, George,” T. J. spoke seriously, “I’m expecting a promotion here. I’m expecting it tomorrow morning in fact. And…”

Page interrupted. “T. J., we’re in a terrible mess. We need you,” he pleaded. “Please think it over tonight and we’ll have Buzz Hello call you tomorrow morning.” Buzz Hello was the vice president for North American Aviation, builders of the Apollo.

T. J. O’Malley turned to his wife, Ann. Few disputed the fact O’Malley had married well above his station in life, and he said, “Mrs. O’Malley, George says they need me at the Cape.”

“Tom,” she said lovingly, “you’ve always made this family a good living. We’re with you. It’s your decision, but,” she winked, “Cocoa Beach is nice.”

Thomas J. O’Malley returned to Cape Canaveral exactly one year to the day he had left and was immediately given the job as director of Apollo Operations by North American Aviation.

He went to work that afternoon and within minutes, he knew two things. One, George Page was right on target. And two, he wasn’t sure Page was his friend. What in the hell had George gotten him into?

There were no simple checks and balances in the Apollo operation. Each department was going down its own road. Each was buying its own stuff. Each was reporting to no one. And experience? Hell, they had none of that.

The team was overloaded with retired military, with colonels and other high-ranking officers doing little more than flying on North American’s travel vouchers to military reunions and such.

The whole thing smelled of military paybacks for aviation and aerospace contracts, and in the coming months while review boards were investigating, while others were pointing fingers and covering their own asses, while engineers in the Downey plant were redesigning and rebuilding Apollo, T. J. O’Malley put on his boots, shined their toes, and began kicking ass and taking names.

On October 11, 1968, a Saturn 1B rocket roared to life on the same launch pad where Apollo 1’s Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee had died. The heavyweight rose toward Earth orbit on 1.3 million pounds of thrust with Apollo 1’s backups, astronauts Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham, and Don Eisele.

Schirra was the first, and would be the only, astronaut to fly all three capsule-type spacecraft of the era—Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo—and he radioed a Mission Control holding its breath, “Apollo is riding like a dream.”

Saturn 1B took Schirra and crew into an orbit 140 by 183 miles high for a mission of eleven days. Apollo 7’s new rebuilt systems and its millions of new parts performed superbly. For the first time, live television from the spacecraft itself fascinated audiences around the world, and our radio and television coverage was suddenly easier. We could monitor the television pictures and describe to our radio listeners what we were seeing, and for television viewers, even though they were black-and-white, the pictures and words spoke for themselves.

The astronauts’ mission was to fly the new ship farther and longer than it would have to fly to the moon and back. The crew was impressed with the size of Apollo 7. Mercury and Gemini had been cramped, but in Apollo, the astronauts could unhook their safety harness and move about the cabin. If they wanted privacy, they could float into a closet-size area beneath the seats, which on later flights to the moon would serve as sleeping quarters.

The eleven-day mission encountered only minor, easily resolved problems. The biggest proved to be with the crew. All three had nasty colds and were orbiting Earth with stuffy noses and headaches. When the mission neared its end, the astronauts were in something less than the best of moods.

The astronauts’ irritability reached its boiling point on the ninth day, when Mission Control decided to try some unplanned systems checks. Apollo 7’s crew rejected the changes in the flight plan immediately, calling them “Mickey Mouse tasks.” Schirra was quick to point out three colleagues had been lost because of lack of attention to plans, called the engineer who thought up one of the tests an “idiot.” Wally Schirra refused to accept any more changes.

I knew from conversations I had had with Wally over coffee that he was flying his last mission. As Gus’s backup, he was picking up the reins dropped tragically by his friend, and after he had proved Apollo was safe to fly, as soon as the debriefings were over he was getting the hell out of Dodge. He’d had it with the space program, and he had made promises to his wife, Jo. He believed the Apollo contract had gone to political cronies instead of experienced, capable people, and because of that, his friend and two colleagues had died.

So, as far as Wally Schirra was concerned, his crew was going to fly the well-thought-out mission and no ad libs, thank you. As commander, he wasn’t going to put his flight in danger. He owed the Apollo 1 crew good results, and he owed his country. He knew NASA had some solid intelligence the Russians were getting ready to try a flight around the backside of the moon. Now, if Apollo 7 could turn in a grade-A performance, the Apollo 8 crew would feel comfortable about beating the Russians there. In spite of his stuffed-up nose and aching head, Wally smiled. The first lunar Christmas could be just around the corner.

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