Apollo 11: One family's sacrifice for that "one small step"

Jul 19, 2019

This Saturday marks fifty years since the first manned moon landing during the NASA mission called Apollo 11. All month long, the APR news team has been looking at stories related to Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s “one small step.” APR news director Pat Duggins spent fourteen years covering the U.S. space program on NPR. During that time, Pat met people who endured sacrifices during the effort to put a man on the moon. Here’s just one of those stories…

“The last Christmas I remember really well. He really got into taking care of the yard. And he decorated the whole house,” recalls Sheryl Chaffee of her father. “The Garden Club a contest and he won the contest.” Sheryl is the daughter of NASA astronaut Roger Chaffee.

NASA Astronaut Roger Chaffee
Credit NASA

I sat down with her for an interview for my first book on the U.S. Space Program. It was on January twenty fourth, 2005. The date is easy to remember, since three days later was a day Sheryl Chaffee said she can’t forget. She typically takes that day off from work. “I just spent time to myself reflecting, I try to remember my dad alive,” she recalled about Apollo 1 astronaut Roger Chaffee. “I was pretty aware. He would show us the Moon. He had big maps in his office that he would show us, and explain to us what it was he was doing. You know, but, for an eight year old. I don’t know how much of it I grasped, but I knew he was doing something pretty special.”

America’s first space accident occurred on January twenty seventh, 1967, two and a half years before Neil Armstrong took the historic first step on the moon. Sheryl Chaffee recalls the knock on the door, and a NASA representative standing outside. That's how they heard about the launch pad fire that killed her father and his crewmates, Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom, and Ed White, the first American to float outside his spacecraft on a spacewalk.

(L to R) NASA astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee
Credit NASA

“It was really kind of funny. I do remember, I can vividly remember it. I, for some reason, thought they were getting divorced,” says Chaffee. “Back then, I didn’t even know how I even knew what divorced was. I remember having nightmares afterwards…thinking that he’d come home, and he had band aids all over him. Yeah, it took a while.” Chaffee and I sat down to talk in her office in the headquarters building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. She took the job at NASA’s launch facility in 1983, and it was there that she had her second brush with a disaster in space three years later. It was the Space Shuttle Challenger accident that killed seven astronauts, including NASA’s teacher in space Christa McAuliffe of New Hampshire.

(L to R) NASA astronauts Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, Mike Smith, and Ellison Onizuka
Credit NASA

“My friends and people that knew, looked at me and wanted to protect me, and make sure I was okay, cause it was hard, cause I watched it,” says Chaffee. “I was here and saw it happen. And everybody was real supportive of me, and I tried also to do whatever I could to get the message out to the families that I’m supportive of them, and it’s hard, but you can go on.”

Sheryl Chaffee isn’t the only person to lose an astronaut family member in the U.S. space race in the 1960’s. The names of Theodore Freeman, Elliot See, Charles Bassett, and Clifton Williams are etched alongside Roger Chaffee’s on the astronauts’ memorial at the Kennedy Space Center. In a new documentary, Apollo flight director Christopher Kraft says if the Apollo 1 fire hadn’t occurred, NASA may not have made it to the moon. The accident prompted a redesign of the Apollo crew capsule that Kraft says made the moon landing possible, just at a huge cost to Sheryl Chaffee and her family.