The Tragic Death Of Astronaut Gus Grissom

We all know of the tragic explosion of the Challenger shuttle that took the lives of seven astronauts in 1986, but in the story of NASA, one of the worst disasters in the department's history happened on solid ground. As NASA reports, on January 27, 1967, a fire during a preflight test for the Apollo 1 mission took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee.

The crew was having trouble communicating with Mission Control while testing the Command Module on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. "How are we going to get to the moon if we can't talk between three buildings?" Grissom is recorded saying just before technicians recorded an electrical surge in the circuits and the crew is heard shouting what sounded like the word "Flames!" White is heard saying, "We've got a fire in the cockpit."

Technicians attempted to open the module's hatch and rescue the crew, but the heat and smoke impeded them for around five minutes, by which time it was already too late. Grissom and his crew mates most likely died from smoke inhalation and burns within the first 30 seconds of the fire.

Gus Grissom (center) might have walked on the moon

Had that terrible accident not cut short his life, Grissom may have been the one to take that small step down to the surface of the moon. In his 1994 autobiography Deke!, NASA Director of Flight Crew Operations Donald "Deke" Slayton remembered Grissom as an astronaut who "could handle anything," making him a contender for the first trip to the moon. Slayton wrote that if he had to choose a candidate based on the ability to handle any situation, "my first choice would have been Gus."

Unfortunately for Grissom and his family, his legacy has been tinged with controversy. According to the Washington Post, his relatives have been in a bitter back-and-forth with NASA ever since they lent a spacesuit owned by Grissom to the then privately owned Astronaut Hall of Fame. When it went bankrupt and its operations were taken over by a NASA contractor in 2002, the family asked for the suit back, but NASA refused. The agency claimed that Grissom had checked the suit out for a show-and-tell at his kids' school and never returned it. His widow Betty says he told her he'd found it in a scrap heap in 1961. "They are just a bunch of thieves," she told the Post. "I've been disgusted and dismayed." The suit remains on display to this day.