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Jay Barbree (left)and Gus Grissom around the time of the astronaut's Gemini 3 flight in 1965. (Courtesy Jay Barbree)

Before the Fire

Veteran space reporter Jay Barbree recalls Apollo's darkest day.

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NBC space correspondent Jay Barbree was still a cub reporter for WALB radio and TV in Albany, Georgia, on the night the Russian Sputnik 1 satellite was launched in October 1957. So taken was he by the event that he moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida, and began reporting on the burgeoning space race. In his book  U.S. manned space mission—offers personal portraits of astronauts along with his fellow journalists. Here he recalls how, as the first Apollo spacecraft was nearing completion in late 1966, Gus Grissom and his fellow astronauts became increasingly concerned about sloppy engineering.

From This Story

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 and 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 bits and pieces of Apollo, including the growing tension between Gus Grissom and 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’d 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 promise. “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, 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 in 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 astronaut 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 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 and Huntley-Brinkley turned the story over to one of their favorites. He kissed off Gus’ 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 it should have been built with a quick-opening explosive mechanism that operated instantly like those in Mercury. For 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.

“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 jumped 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.

From the book Live from Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race, from Sputnik to Today by Jay Barbree. Copyright © 2007 by Jay Barbree. Reprinted by permission of Smithsonian Books/Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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