08/09/2011 10:09 am ET Updated Oct 09, 2011

Space History in DC: White Roses for Explorers, Part 3

Events of July 4, 2011

After paying my respects at the Challenger and Columbia memorials, I headed down the road to find Section 3. On the way, I walked past the grave of Audie Murphy, the most decorated American solider of World War II. Many people had left stones and coins (and even a dollar bill) on top of his headstone as symbols of respect.

I was looking for Virgil "Gus" Grissom and Roger Chaffee, who, along with their crewmate Ed White, had been killed while training for the first crewed Apollo mission in 1967. But Section 3 was very big, and while I looked for a long time, I couldn't find them. I wasn't even sure what order the graves were in -- chronological, alphabetical, or what. The heat was really starting to sink in, and the mosquitoes started swarming around me. The sheer size of the cemetery hadn't really sunk in before, but I spent a long time in Section 3 without seeing another living person. Finally, I decided to go find a park ranger and ask for help finding Grissom and Chaffee.

I knew there'd be park rangers at Arlington House, located on the highest hill in the cemetery. The mansion had belonged to Confederate military leader Robert E. Lee, and the land had been turned into a cemetery after the Union had confiscated his estate during the Civil War. The view from the top of the hill of the Pentagon and the city of Washington was breathtaking. I could see the Capitol building, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial, and even the dome of the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin.

The park rangers at the house were glad to help look up the location I wanted to find, and one even said he'd visited Grissom's grave himself not too long before. With their aid, I set off for Section 3 again, taking a detour to visit the Kennedy family.

After a little more searching for the exact location the rangers had marked on my map, I found Grissom and Chaffee's graves, right next to each other. Not too far away was another astronaut, James Irwin, who'd walked on the moon on Apollo 15. A large wreath had been placed there to honor the 40th anniversary of that mission, with a ribbon that said "Your Family Honors You".

There were several pebbles on top of the headstones of the Apollo 1 crewmembers, and on top of Roger Chaffee's, there was also a coin. At first I thought it was just a quarter, but as I got closer, I recognized it as something else.

At the Smithsonian museums, they sell these little metal tokens. Every museum has a different one, and you're supposed to "collect them all". (I'd never bought one, because I thought they were sort of silly.) The ones they sell at the National Air and Space Museum show a moonwalker and the words "Apollo 11- July 20, 1969".

But whoever had left that "silly" little token had been sending a very simple message -- "It wasn't for nothing, they made it." Chaffee died before he could go into space, but because of the modifications made to the Apollo spacecraft after the accident, a safe and successful moon landing was possible.

And when was that moon landing?

"Apollo 11 - July 20, 1969."

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