An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Memorial at Arlington

Mar 28, 2019 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1.Professor Elder, I understand that you have just been asked to serve as Chair of a Committee to honor 3 brave astronauts who died in the space race. How did this come about?

Since the untimely deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967, during a training exercise for the first Apollo space mission, a number of people have suggested that the three deserve a memorial commemorating their heroic service to the nation. Finally, in 2017 Congress put a provision into the National Defense Authorization Act mandating the creation of such a memorial.

The language identified Arlington National Cemetery as the location that Congress saw as a logical site for the memorial, but called upon a body representing the parties interested in the endeavor to consider other possible sights before making a final recommendation. Because of its stature within the realm of aeronautics and astronautics, the American Astronautical Society History Committee quickly emerged as the frontrunner to spearhead such an effort.

Since I serve on an international space history committee, the New Mexico Museum of Space History Commission, and the AAS History Committee, a number of individuals asked if I would chair the Apollo one Memorial Committee. Deeply honored by their request, I happily agreed to serve in that capacity.

2. A little background and history lesson: Who were the three astronauts, and what exactly happened?

In 1959, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced plans to send individuals into outer space, an endeavor known as Project Mercury. Before issuing the call for volunteers, NASA briefly considered offering everyone from deep sea divers to circus acrobats the opportunity to participate, but quickly decided that they would limit the field to military personnel.

After a thorough vetting of the candidates, NASA selected a United States Air Force pilot named Virgil “Gus” Grissom as one of the seven individuals that it would send into space. In 1961, he became the second American “astronaut.” By the time that he flew into outer space, President John F. Kennedy had expanded the mission of NASA to include putting a person on the Moon by the end of the decade.

An engineer at NASA named John Houbolt suggested utilizing a three-person crew taking a capsule into orbit around the Moon, and then descending to the surface in a lunar module. To bridge the gap between the original one-person and the eventual three-person projects, NASA designed an intermediate two-person space effort, known as Project Gemini.

Grissom made the transition to Gemini, and NASA added a new group of astronauts to join him. Ed White, also a USAF officer, came into NASA at that time. Once NASA completed the Gemini flights, it began preparation for three-person missions (a program that NASA named Apollo). For these spaceflights, NASA brought in even more astronauts, among them an officer from the US Navy by the name of Roger Chaffee. These three became the crew for the initial Apollo flight, scheduled for February of 1967. On January 27 of that year, the three participated in a launch simulation at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Unfortunately, a fire started in the capsule, and the resulting toxic fumes asphyxiated the astronauts.

3. Who are the other people involved, and where will this monument be?

A man named Frank Slazer, who works for the Aerospace Industries Association, initially suggested that someone from the American Astronautical Society History Committee should head the effort to create a memorial for the Apollo One astronauts. Michael Ciancone, an engineer to the John Spaceflight Center, currently heads that committee, sent out a call for volunteers to participate in this effort, and I immediately volunteered. Michael then asked if I would head the effort, and I humbly accepted the position. The three of us quickly realized that we agreed that the memorial rightly belongs at Arlington National Cemetery. We hope that we can convince the cemetery to accept our recommendation, and then we will attempt to do the same with Congress.

4. What is going to be involved in procuring the funds for this memorial and where will it be placed?

Aerospace companies have traditionally given generously to projects that commemorate space endeavors, and we hope that they will contribute to this effort.

In all honesty, fundraising is not my area of expertise, and I am therefore hopeful that either Frank or Michael will prove able to take care of this very necessary aspect of the proposal.I understand that you and the members of the committee will actually go before Congress in this regard.

5. What do you anticipate and do you have any idea when this will occur?

We are currently involved in a project that requires a minimum of three steps. First, we need permission from Arlington National Cemetery to construct a memorial there. Once Arlington National Cemetery agrees and we inform Congress of that decision, we then will begin raising funds and deciding on a design for the memorial.

At that point, I envision that Congress will then ask the three of us to testify on our plan. Congress may ask us to testify earlier in the process, but I believe it is a “when” rather than “if” situation regarding the likelihood of Congressional testimony. 

6. Any last thoughts about this honor?

Ernie Pyle, the greatest American war correspondent in our history, said in a Pulitzer Prize-winning column that “you feel very small in the presence of dead men.” I believe this is doubly true with the Apollo One astronauts, who knew the risks involved in space flight and took them on because they wanted the United States to succeed in putting a person on the Moon.

I certainly hope that our efforts can at last do justice for people who gave their lives for our great nation.

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