There's a point in "Inherit the Wind" when Spencer Tracy is addressing the jury on progress. His comments were in the context of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution; while you may or may not agree with that particular theory, there can be little disagreement with what Tracy's character said about progress of any kind:
"Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it."In that context, Tracy was speaking of the things that had to be given up to make way for the new, but it isn't always things that are sacrificed. Often it is lives.
America's space program certainly has been like that — and you would be hard pressed to find a better example of an endeavor that was undertaken almost exclusively in the name of progress.
It is also beyond dispute that the space program revolutionized our lives. Think of all that was made possible by the things that the astronauts discovered.
And the space program didn't have to pay much of a price, really, until this day in 1967.
It was on this day that the crew of Apollo 1 — Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee — perished when a fire broke out during a test of their spaceship at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Americans had become spoiled with all the successes of the space program in the '60s. Sure, there had been some problems with the unmanned rockets in the program's nascent days, and that had been costly in a monetary sense, but there had been no casualties.
Americans held their breath as the astronauts did things that would make Americans shrug and sniff just a few years later, like blast off, leave the Earth's atmosphere, then return, proving it could be done, or orbiting the Earth, proving that could be done as well. Each mission was a building block to the goal President Kennedy set for the space program earlier in the decade — to send men to the moon and return them to the Earth.
They made it all look routine, just as they did a couple of decades later with the space shuttle. Just as when the Challenger blew up on almost the same day in 1986, Americans were shocked when the fire broke out and snuffed out the lives of the three astronauts.
Grissom had been one of the original Mercury astronauts with John Glenn (Grissom was the first Mercury astronaut to die; Glenn was the last only a few months ago). White was the first American to walk in space. Chaffee would have been on his first space mission.
All the astronauts were prepared to die if necessary, but I doubt they dwelled on the possibility. That's the way people in dangerous professions have to be if they are to do those jobs the way they need to be done.
On this day 50 years ago, the quest to fulfill Kennedy's pledge and the desire for progress took three lives. It wasn't a bargain, but America paid the price — and rose from the ashes, meeting Kennedy's challenge with the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969.