This year marks the 50th anniversary of the loss of the Apollo 1 mission crew. We remember the disaster and the three crew members – Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – who lost their lives. We are proud to reflect on the life and contributions of Astronaut White, a University of Michigan alum.
Apollo 1 capsule post-fireOn January 27, 1967, the Apollo Command and Service Module experienced a catastrophic failure while undergoing a launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34. The Module was intended to launch three weeks later on February 21, 1967, serving as a foundational flight in NASA’s ultimate quest to the moon. During this rehearsal test, a fire broke out in the Apollo cabin; in the five minutes it took for the cabin to be unsealed, the crew had perished.
The failure resulted in key mechanical and procedural alterations that laid the groundwork for improved safety and success in successive Apollo missions. The cabin atmosphere was changed from 100% oxygen to a less combustible mixture of oxygen and nitrogen. Flammable materials were removed from the cabin and the capsule’s hatch design was modified to allow for quick evacuation in case of emergency. Institutionally, a separate safety organization was established within NASA to ensure objective and rigorous mission safety assessments.
Astronaut Ed White’s legacy spans far beyond that tragic day.
The son of a career military pilot, White was immersed in aviation from a young age; by twelve years old, he had controlled a T-6 trainer under the guidance of his father. In 1952, he received a Bachelor of Science degree from West Point, serving as Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force. He spent almost four years in Germany as a member of a fighter squad, flying F-86 Sabre jets and F-100 fighter jets.
In 1957, White became set on joining the elite astronaut corps. Believing an advanced degree would make himself a more competitive candidate, White attended the University of Michigan for graduate school, receiving a master’s in Aeronautical Engineering. He also enrolled for Air Force Test Pilot School, serving as a test pilot in the Aeronautical Systems Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
In 1962, White’s dream was brought to fruition; he was selected as an astronaut for Project Gemini, the follow-up program to Mercury. He specialized in the development of flight control systems, a role which he greatly enjoyed for the opportunity it afforded him to incorporate “the pilot’s own touch” into the spacecraft design.
On June 3, 1965, White made history as the first American to conduct a spacewalk. The pilot of the Gemini 4 mission, he conducted an “EVA” (extravehicular activity) during the spacecraft’s third revolution of the Earth. The photo on the left was taken by Commander James McDivitt, another Michigan alum, during White’s EVA.
Upon his return, White received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and the U.S. Air Force Senior Astronaut Wings award. In 1966, he was named as one of the pilots of the Apollo 1 mission.