167. On the Brink of Glory

Not everyone who does the work endures the danger is there to reap the glory.

Take Eliot See and Charles Bassett for example. Both were chosen for the second group of astronauts, and were assigned as the crew of Gemini 9. They were flying together in a T-38 trainer en route to prepare for that mission when they went down on approach to Lambert field in bad weather. Both were killed, crashing into the building where their spacecraft had been built, not 500 feet from the Gemini 9 itself.

Gemini 9 would have been the first spaceflight for each man.

Everyone knows the names Grissom, White, and Chaffee, who died on the launchpad in the “Apollo One” fire. Grissom and White were veteran astronauts. Roger Chaffee was among the third group of astronauts chosen. He worked through the Gemini program without being given a mission, then was chosen to replace Donn Eisele, who had been injured during training, on the first scheduled Apollo mission. That flight ended in fire, on the ground during routine preparations; Chaffee never got to fly in space. Eisele recovered from his injuries and flew on the next (and first successful) Apollo mission.

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was the first African-American astronaut. (Ed Dwight had been an astronaut candidate earlier, but was forced out.) At Edwards Air Force Base, Lawrence investigated unpowered glide return characteristics using an F-104 Starfighter, contributing greatly to knowledge necessary to the Space Shuttle program. He was assigned to the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, but before he flew in space, he was killed in a crash landing while acting as a pilot instructor to a trainee. When the MOL project was abandoned, many of it’s astronauts transferred to NASA, where they became the backbone of the early Space Shuttle missions. Lawrence would almost certainly have been among them.

Milburn Apt became the first man to reach Mach 3, and died in the same flight. It was his his first flight in the X-2 rocket plane. He achieved the mission objectives, but found that his flight had carried him unexpectedly far from Edwards. Because of the X-2’s noted instability, he was not scheduled to begin return maneuvers until his speed had dropped, but that would have carried him too far for a safe return glide. He began to turn back at above optimum speed, and lost control as turbulence knocked him unconscious. When he regained awareness, he ejected his safety capsule – the forward section of the craft – but did not survive.

Apt received unwanted posthumous fame. The cockpit camera recorded the final seconds of his flight, and that film became required viewing for all subsequent pilots preparing for hypersonic flight.

Apt’s daughter was two years old when he died. She later became a writer, and her Letter to My Father Concerning the State of the World is a moving exploration of what it meant to her to be the daughter of a test pilot who did not survive.

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