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Apollo 1: We must never forget them

Jan. 29, 2010 --      It was Jan. 27, 1967, and the three astronauts assigned to the Apollo 1 mission climbed into the Command Module mounted on the Saturn 1B on Launch Complex 34 for what was to be a routine "full dress rehearsal" for their scheduled launch date of Feb 21.
     It turned out to be anything but routine. Approximately five and one-half hours after they first entered the module ­ at precisely 6:31 p.m., the four words no one wanted ­ or expected to hear ­ rang out.
     "Fire inside the cockpit," came the scream.
     Seventeen seconds later, there came no more communication from Lt. Col.
Edward H. White II, Lt. Col. Virgil "Gus" Grissom, both Air Force Officers, and Lt. Cmdr. Roger Chafee, a member of the U.S. Navy.
     Six minutes later, when the hatch was finally able to be opened, it was discovered all three had died from inhaling carbon monoxide and other toxic gasses generated by the flash fire.
     It was later discovered that the most likely cause of the fire was a spark from a short circuit in a bundle of wires that fan to the left and front of Grissom's seat.
     The investigation eventually led to major engineering and design changes, making the Apollo spacecraft safer for the soon-to-be-coming journeys to the moon.
     Since that day, friends and relatives of the fallen astronauts have gathered at the same spot of the accident. Wednesday evening, hundreds gathered at Launch Pad 34, where memories ­ and respect was paid to all three fallen heroes.
     "Forty-three years ago today, we learned just how risky and dangerous this business can really be," said Brig. Gen. Edward L. Bolton, Jr., commander, 45th Space Wing. "These men and their contributions to space will never be forgotten," he said.
     Norman Grissom, Gus' brother, was joined by his wife, Becky, and other Grissom family members who attended the ceremony. Lt. Col. Grissom's wife, Betty, his son Mark and grandson Cody, were also there.
     It was Cody who diffused the three candles at the end of the touching ­ and uplifting ­ ceremony.
     "First of all, let me just say how thankful the entire Grissom family is to the Air Force to keep doing this. It's a great thing that the memories and accomplishments of all three of these great men are kept alive like this," said Norman.
     "To most people, my brother is best known as an astronaut, but deep down he was an Air Force man," he said.
     "I'm just about at a loss of words to say how much this means to all of us," he said. "And to see this many people show up, and so many of them in uniform who never even knew Virgil... well, it says something really good about the Air Force to me," he said.
     For the last decade, the honor of holding this memorial ceremony has been given to Detachment 1, 45th Mission Support Group. They know full well it's not about them.
     "Not at all. Not one bit about us," said Dr. Sonny Witt, the detachment's director of operations.
     "This day ­ and this ceremony ­ is 100 percent about those three astronauts and their family members. We must never forget that, and we never will," he said.