The Road to the Moon Landings – Apollo 1 – Life Magazine, 1967

In the upcoming two weeks, Iconic Photos would cover the NASA missions to the other space and the Moon as they appeared in leading picture magazines of the time: Life, Epoca, Paris-Match, Look, Sunday Times, etc.

These documents are not just historical records: they are tributes to the bravery and ingenuity of the astronauts and engineers who took humanity’s first steps into the vastness of space. They celebrate a time when space was a new and dangerous frontier, and each mission captured the world’s imagination.

On January 27, 1967, a fire broke out in the command module during a pre-flight test at Cape Kennedy. All three astronauts aboard perished: Gus Grissom, a veteran of Mercury and Gemini missions; Edward H. White II, the first American to walk in space; and Roger B. Chaffee, preparing for his first space flight.

The fire was caused by a small electrical spark, which turned into a fierce conflagration in the command module’s atmosphere of pure oxygen at higher than atmospheric pressure. The mission, originally designated AS-204, was renamed to Apollo 1 at the request of the crew’s families. This would be the last crewed Apollo mission until Apollo 7 over a year, several congressional inquiries, and major design and engineering changes later, on October 11, 1968.

LIFE magazine had a somber but defiant coverage of the incident. On February 3, 1967 edition, it wrote:

Grissom . . . White . . . Chaffee. . . .

They bought the farm right on the pad, cooked in the silvery furnaces of their spacesuits, killed in a practice run before they could ever know the surge of their great Apollo craft driving upward to orbit. But put these astronauts high on the list of the men who really count, three men with the square and almost sissy names of Virgil and Edward and Roger who had the presumption to believe the earth was mostly a marvelous launching platform, a great place to leave for an adventure. Think about them, about how they were always willing to force themselves past the point of danger and deep fatigue to perfect their understanding of the machines they flew. It is the coldest sort of irony that they must have known instantly the exact nature of the monstrous mistake that killed them. For them, no more cries of “Wow, what a view!” No more phone calls from the President. They will not see their wives and the children meeting them.

Grissom . . . White . . . Chaffee. . . .

LIFE was extremely privileged among the US weeklies, because it had an exclusive contract with the NASA astronauts to document their personal lives. It had a specific photographer, Ralph Morse, assigned to photograph the astronauts, their wives, their children and their home lives. LIFE had a 3-year contract that was worth $500,000 for the Mercury Seven astronauts. Distributed equally, it meant $70K per man — 10x the annual salary for astronauts making $7K a year. In addition, each astronaut received a $100,000 life insurance policy — traditional insurance companies would not underwrite an astronaut, so LIFE arranged for additional coverage.

Morse’s photos of Grissom, White and Chaffee appeared in the magazine. The following edition, which had the photo of the astronauts’ funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, showed the photo of the scotched command module (lead photo, above).

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