What was once a hotbed for NASA rocket departures, Launch Complex 34, or LC-34, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, is now abandoned, and dedicated to preserving the memory of the three astronauts who perished in a shuttle fire at the site in 1967.
While a number of rockets were fired into outer space from LC-34, it was the tragedy of the Apollo I project (the first manned rocket in the series), that secured the location’s place in history.
Despite a number of concerns over the amount of flammable material contained within the cockpit of the Apollo I landing module, among other design flaws, the conical spacecraft went through a rehearsal launch in January 1967. During the exercise, a small cabin fire ignited, which led to a deadly chain of events, leaving all three astronauts (Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee) in the cabin dead. The fire reacted with the pressurized oxygen and other gasses in the chamber, and within 16 seconds it had turned the air inside caustically lethal, quickly melting the astronauts’ suits and hoses and exposing them to the unbreathable atmosphere before they could open the door.
Following the tragedy, LC-34 stayed in use for another year, but was finally retired in 1968. Many of the large structures were dismantled, but the main rocket cradle, as well as a couple of ramped fire guards, were left in place. The large cement cradle sits in the middle of the launch pad and is now the official memorial to the brave astronauts who perished there, adorned with a commemorative plaque that tells their tale.
It might be earthbound, but the memorial remembers an important, if tragic, bump on our road to the stars.
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