The American Spirit. We hardly ever hear those words spoken any more. What did we mean by it? Author Stephen E. Ambrose gave us a detailed idea in his book about the Corps of Discovery — the Lewis and Clark Expedition — Undaunted Courage. At the dawn of the 19th Century, less than three dozen men made their way to the Pacific Ocean by boat and on foot, not knowing what they would find along the way. Like Columbus, they were going into the great unknown, and were not even sure they would return. But they did indeed return to make their report to President Thomas Jefferson, having lost only one man (to an appendicitis). They may not have found the Northwest Passage, but their courage opened up a continent and set the stage for pioneers and settlers for the better part of the 1800s.
In many ways, the early astronauts of the U.S. Space Program epitomized this rare quality. When John Glenn orbited the earth, or when the Gemini astronauts “walked in space,” the world watched. But it was not a series of complete successes. There were setbacks. And years before the two Shuttle disasters, there was a terrible tragedy that almost stopped the American space program in its tracks. But it did not.
Today we remember the first three astronauts who, on January 27, 1967, lost their lives in a launchpad fire as they were preparing for the Apollo 1 mission scheduled for the following month. A flash fire raged through the capsule and all three men died. It was almost the end of the space program. Yet through perseverance and undaunted courage, America continued with the Apollo program. Less than two years later, Apollo 8 circled the moon and returned safely to Earth. And the crowning success: two and one-half years after the Apollo 1 tragedy, Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.
Fifty-five years ago today. May God bless Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee for having inspired a generation of American youth, and may they rest in peace.