17. The disaster of January 1967
Gemini missions came to an end in November of 1966, and the focus of NASA and the general public was on the growing excitement over Project Apollo and the manned mission to the moon. In 1967 it was clear that the United States was far ahead of the Soviets, and American pride in the Space Program had been reinforced by the successes of the Gemini program, with its frequent launches and the reports to the public which ignored the failures, most of which they never heard of at the time. Gemini veterans Gus Grissom and Ed White were assigned to the first Apollo mission, along with rookie astronaut but veteran pilot (including of the U-2) Roger Chafee. The flight was scheduled to launch in February, with a mission of testing the Apollo command module and the ground support systems.
In January 1967, during a communications test while the capsule was on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, a fire broke out, which in the oxygen rich atmosphere expanded quickly, splitting the side of the spacecraft, killing the three astronauts, and bringing the space program to a halt which lasted twenty months. For the first time, some of the accidents and potential accidents which had always been a part of the program were revealed as Congress investigated and the newspapers reported their findings. Support for the space program waned as its costs and potential benefits were debated. There was also a growing belief that the Soviets were no longer interested in a trip to the moon, rendering such an effort unnecessary.