I’ve been watching this excellent show on Discovery chronicling the NASA space flight missions. It sparked my interest in the Mercury 7 and subsequent Apollo missions and compelled me to do a bit of reading. I quickly began to see parallels between the ill-fated Everest climb of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine and the fatal Apollo 1 tragedy that took the lives of astronauts Roger Chaffee, Ed White, and Gus Grissom.
I further drew more distinct parallels between Gus Grissom and George Mallory. I’ve written about the Mallory and Irvine tragedy in detail but I’ll summarize again here. George Mallory died in 1924, along with his young climbing partner Andrew Irvine, attempting to be the first to reach the peak of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. There is much speculation they made it to the top but died on the descent; however, the generally acknowledged opinion is that they died on the ascent, having never reached the top. Part of why their story is famous is because of the possibility they might have actually reached the top first (a missing camera might hold photographic proof). The pair, particularly George Mallory, achieved iconic status after the valiant-but failed-pioneering attempt to reach the peak.
Gus Grissom was the second American in space, member of the famous Mercury 7 astronauts, and was killed in a fire during a training exercise for the Apollo 1 mission. He died along with fellow astronaut Ed White (who was the first American to perform a space walk) and rookie astronaut Roger Chaffee.
The first similarity I noticed was the pioneering spirit of both Grissom and Mallory; they both felt a strong calling to their respective challenges. They seemed to feel these callings were worth risking their lives for and, if unavoidable, worth dying for. Mallory had forebodingly mentioned that he felt climbing Everest was akin to “going to war” and that he might not make it back from his third and final attempt at the mountain. Grissom, similarly, had this to say after the Gemini 3 mission in March, 1965:
If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.
There are other minor similarities. Mallory was 37 when he died, Grissom 40. Mallory was paired with a rookie in his quest, Grissom paired with a rookie in Roger Chaffee. (Ed White was younger than Grissom but not inexperienced.) Both Mallory and Grissom had children who were left fatherless after their deaths.
Most importantly though was this: if Mallory would have survived he could have been the first person in history to reach the summit of Mount Everest. If Gus Grissom had survived he could very well have been the first person in history to set foot on the moon.
In his 1994 autobiography Deke!, chief astronaut Deke Slayton said he wanted one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts to be the first on the moon and, “Had Gus been alive, as a Mercury astronaut he would have taken the step.” Slayton also wrote, “My first choice would have been Gus, which both Chris Kraft and Bob Gilruth seconded.”
There was no guarantee of success for either of these two men, but the opportunity was there. Both of these men died in the attempt to realize their respective goals, both were unsuccessful, and both goals were ultimately achieved by others. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ultimately conquered Everest and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin ultimately walked on the moon.
It’s important to sometimes stop for a minute to consider those who didn’t make it, who died in the attempt, but whose contributions were used to help pave the way for those whose names grace our history books.
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