On January 27th, 1969, the three members of Apollo 1 were conducting a routine test of their spacecraft when the unthinkable happened: a spark, most likely caused by a short in the cockpit wiring and fueled by a pure oxygen environment, caused a flash fire that killed the crew. The tragedy pushed America's spaceflight ambitions back as many elements of the program had to be redesigned to better crew safety.
The commander for the mission was Gus Grissom, a forty-one year old astronaut who was the likely candidate to become the first man to land on the moon. Born to a Midwestern family in 1926, Grissom joined the US Army Air Corp during the Second World War, but never saw flight time, as the war ended. Using the GI Bill, he attended Purdue University and obtained a degree in Mechanical Engineering. In 1950, with the United States headed back to war with Korea, Grissom rejoined the US Air Force and trained as a pilot, eventually flying 100 combat missions. In 1959, Grissom was summoned to Washington, along with over a hundred other test pilots, where he learned that he was selected for a number of tests to screen out qualified pilots for the newly established space program. In the end, he was one of seven astronauts chosen for the program, who would later be known as the Mercury 7. The next couple of years would see intense training and preparations for the missions. In 1961, John Shepherd Jr. become the first of the Mercury astronauts to be launched into orbit; Grissom would be the second, in the Liberty Bell 7, on July 21st, 1961.
Arguably, Grissom held what was the more important of the two launches. While Shepherd is better known for being the first American in space, Grissom should be better known for the astronaut who proved that American spaceflight was on the right track, and that the flight of the Freedom 7 was not just a lucky break. Grissom demonstrated that spaceflight was a repeatable event, and did so at considerable risk, as his spacecraft was lost when the door blew off after landing. Grissom almost perished in the accident, but was pulled to safety.
Grissom was also scheduled for the second flight of the Gemini Program, but when Alan Shepherd was grounded due to illness, Grissom and astronaut John Young were tasked with the first flight, which launched in 1965. The flight went well, orbiting the earth three times before splashing down, helping to demonstrate that men could do more than merely go into space for short periods of time: the Gemini project helped show that people could live in space, and set the groundwork for Apollo. Following that mission, Grissom and other astronauts helped with the design process for the Apollo module, although their frustrations grew as more errors were discovered with the spacecraft.
At the point of his death, Grissom was one of the United State's most experienced astronauts, having completed missions on both the Mercury and Gemini projects. The astronauts were integral to the development of the space program, and Grisson's background in Mechanical engineering, as well as his experience as a test pilot, made him an ideal candidate to lead the way into space. Despite Grissom's death, space travel did continue onwards, although it would be another two years before Americans would set foot on the moon, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin manning Apollo 11. There is much speculation that Grissom would have been in charge of that mission, had he survived.
Interestingly, one of the quotes attributed to Grissom sums up one of the harsh realities of space travel: "If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it wll not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life." (Gus Grissom, John Barbour et al., Footprints on the Moon, Associated Press, 1969, p 125.)