As the last scheduled NASA Space Shuttle flight finishes up its mission, I was thinking back to the earliest space missions I could recall directly from my youth. Turns out the first mission I remembered was Apollo One, a mission which never got off the ground.
From Wikipedia: "Apollo 1 (also designated Apollo Saturn-204 and AS-204) was scheduled to be the first manned mission of the Apollo manned lunar landing program, with a target launch date of February 21, 1967. A cabin fire during a launch pad test on January 27 at Launch Pad 34 at Cape Canaveral killed all three crew members: Command Pilot Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee; and destroyed the Command Module. The mission name Apollo 1, chosen by the crew, was officially retired by NASA in commemoration of them on April 24, 1967.
Immediately after the fire, NASA convened the Apollo 204 Accident Review Board to determine the cause of the fire. Although the ignition source was never conclusively identified, the astronauts' deaths were attributed to a wide range of lethal design and construction flaws in the early Apollo Command Module. The manned phase of the project was delayed for twenty months while these problems were corrected."
The NASA Space program meant a lot to myself and my fellow school chums. In the late 1960's I was just becoming slowly aware of how fractured our country was over racial issues, a long-distance ground war in South-East Asia and new ideas of sexuality, humor, free speech, feminism, fashions and a whole thing called "the generation gap".
Even the length of a man's hair was a subject of anger and dissent!
It was a different time and there weren't a lot of real-life heroes for kids to admire. The astronauts of thee Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs at least provided us what other generations took for granted--adults in the larger society we could all look up to. With some other grade school colleagues, I remember playing "Astronauts in Space" after school in my parents' garage. I'm sure a lot of kids did.
We even had a couple "girl astronauts"from down the block, who would drop by for a voyage. Must have been the influence of Lt. Uhura from "Star Trek" that made it seem more natural to have a girl or two on the crew from time to time. We beat NASA to gender integration by at least a full decade! We also had a lot of innocent fun.
If a new actual space mission would launch it would heighten interest of course. And there were new space missions. Apollo 7 was launced as part of the testing of the lunar module. Apollo 8 actually orbited the moon (!) in December of 1968. I still remember hearing the astronauts on that flight speaking on Christmas Eve and then seeing actual footage of the earth taken from one-quarter million miles away. Humans seen the earth for the first time not as a giant sphere dominating a picture but as a distant blue planet of small size. It changed the way people thought about our planet. Not surprisingly I think it helped the ecology movement as well.
No, NASA wasn't perfect. There were no African-American or Hispanic astronauts, no women, just middle-aged white guys in crew cuts. And they probably wouldn't have let any of them wear long hair even if one of the astronauts wanted to.
And yes, there was a "space race" on with the Soviets. But consider that that race led to a joint Apollo-Soyuz mission a few years later--American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts meeting in a orbital space docking of spacecrafts in 1975. And we all have an international space station circling above us today.
These brave men, including Chuck Grissom--one of the original Mercury astronauts--were our heroes. And, apart from the sports stars in baseball, basketball and football, these guys and the other astronaut crews would have been worthy of hero status in any generation I think.
And so it's worth remembering those who volunteered eagerly to overcome whatever fears they might have had, and risk their lives for something that humans had been dreaming about long before anybody ever heard of the USSR or the USA.
When the Apollo 11 crew of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, it was a great moment. But without all those who came before them, including Grissom and White and Chafee, and all those who either designed unmanned rockets going back to the Chinese centuries before or flew in propeller craft when human flight was in its infancy , none of this magic blend of individual grit and scientific prowess would have happened.