Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 17, 1997


The Oval Office

10:37 A.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Dr. Gibbons, Mr. Goldin, Congressman Sensenbrenner; to Edward White and the White family, and Martha Chaffee and the Chaffee family, and Mrs. Grissom, other representatives of the astronauts' families that are here.

A generation ago, President Kennedy challenged our nation and asked God's blessing to undertake the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked. His challenge in 1961 to send a man to the moon and bring him safely back to Earth by the end of the decade captured the imagination of millions of people around the world. A group of pioneering Americans recognized the limitless possibilities of this seemingly impossible challenge, and they would risk their lives to make it happen.

Two great Americans we honor today, Lt. Commander Roger Chaffee and Lt. Colonel Edward White, were among them. More than 30 years ago, these two men, along with their commander, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, were selected for the very first Apollo mission.

Tragedy struck before they could achieve their goal. On January 27, 1967, fire swept through the Apollo capsule during a training session, killing all three of them. In 1978, President Carter presented Commander Grissom with one of the first Congressional Space Medals of Honor. Today, I have the privilege of presenting the same medal to his crewmates, Roger Chaffee and Edward White, courageous men who gave their lives in our nation's effort to conquer the frontiers of space.

Even before they joined the Apollo program, Chaffee and White had already served our nation with great distinction. Born in Texas and a member of the United States Air Force, Colonel White was the first American to walk in space. At a White House ceremony soon afterward, President Johnson called him "one of the Christopher Columbuses of our century."

Commander Chaffee was a Michigan native and a decorated Navy pilot. Though he was the rookie of the crew, he didn't lack self-confidence. He once said, "Hell, I'd feel secure taking it up all by myself."

Today we bestow upon Roger Chaffee and Edward White the highest honor in America's space program, but they were honored in our hearts long ago. Their deaths will remind us always that exploring space is dangerous, life-threatening work -- work that demands and deserves the bravest and best among us. Though they never got there, astronauts Chaffee, White, and Grissom's footprints are on the moon. Their presence is felt on every mission of our space shuttle program. Their spirits live on in every successful launch and every safe return. And I'm certain they will be there when the international space station goes into orbit.

America has become the world's leading space-faring nation because of the selfless pioneering spirits of the men we honor today. I am proud to present these medals to the families of Roger Chaffee and Edward White. On behalf of a grateful nation, I thank them for their sacrifice.

Now I'd like to ask the military aide to read the citations.

(The citations are read.)

MR. WHITE: On behalf of the families gathered here today, I would like to thank NASA and the administration for recommending and approving these prestigious awards. We are all very proud of these honors.

Edward White II, Roger Chaffee, and their crewmate, Gus Grissom, have left our nation with two important legacies. The first is that of a safer space program. As a result of the tragic Apollo I fire, the entire space program was overhauled, especially in the areas of quality, workmanship and crew safety. Due to this renewed emphasis, two and a half years later, the United States was able to achieve John Kennedy's goal of landing men on the moon, and more importantly, returning them safely to Earth.

Now that we have recently passed the milestone of 100 manned missions since Apollo I, it is a testimony to this safety emphasis that we have a 99 percent success rate.

The second legacy is that of a safer planet. Not only did the Apollo program win the space race and plant our American flag on the moon, it also planted the seeds for the technological revolution that we are in the midst of today. Our worldwide technology supremacy was the ultimate outcome and final victory of the space race. And we are a much safer world today because of this victory.

I hope these two legacies continue for many generations to come and encourage us to continue taking risks to explore new frontiers.

Thank you again. (Applause.)

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