The following front page article from the Antelope Valley Press (Palmdale, California) of June 2, 2014 gives a description of the funeral my wife and I missed due to us not getting word of it in the process of returning Stateside from Ecuador. The Celebration of Life honored the life of one Don Babbitt, whom we got to know from our time here at Grace Chapel in Lancaster. The story is by Dennis Anderson, Valley Press Editor.
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LANCASTER - One of the men in the space shuttle program who knew Donald Oliver Babbitt as a mentor also knew that the seasoned space program engineer loved to tell tall stories, but there was one great story that he never told, and it was about himself.
Phil Burkhardt, who was one of the last of the last in the space shuttle program before it was shut down, remembers coming out to Dryden, the NASA center at Edwards Air Force Base, "and I felt like I had died and gone to heaven."
Burkhardt arrived in the glory days of the space shuttle program to work on ground operations and recovery, the part that involved the team that went out and retrieved the orbiter after it landed and carried the astronaut crew back for de-briefing.
His boss was Babbitt, a Navy veteran electronics man who had worked in the space program from its earliest days, the Mercury program profiled in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," the Gemini and Apollo programs, and finally the space shuttle operations team.
"It would get cold out at Dryden, down into single degrees," Burkhardt recalled, "and as the sun came up, the temperature would actually drop, and Don liked to tell stories, and as long as he was telling a story, we would stay in where it was warm."
Finally, they would get out onto the lakebed at Rogers Dry Lake to commence the day's operations. That was in the mid-1980's, when Babbitt was the lead engineer in ground operations, and he acted as a teacher, mentor, and friend to Burkhardt, who was in his mid-20's at the time.
Babbitt, who was 85, died May 21, and his memorial service, with military honors, was conducted Saturday at Grace Chapel with Assistant Pastor Pat Tanner officiating.
"Today is both bitter and sweet, in that we will honor the life of Donald Babbitt," Tanner said. "I read his obituary, and I find I always learn something else about someone I believed that I knew, and knew well."
Babbitt's record of exemplary service, humility and courage was underscored by his strong faith and belief in Jesus Christ as his way, his truth, and his life, Tanner said.
The story Babbitt never shared about himself was one that was resurrected for the obituary.
"If you knew our Dad, you may not have known that he was a 'hero.' Not just to us, but to the United States. He hardly ever talked about his accomplishments, but they were many," the obituary started.
Babbitt's is a story that was told in the book, "Lost Moon," and it was the story of the tragic and devastating fire that took the lives of three Apollo astronauts trapped in the capsule, atop the gantry at Cape Kennedy, Florida.
Babbitt, the "pad leader," meaning launch pad, was with the team closest to the burning capsule that was intended to carry the first-ever team of Apollo astronauts aloft.
This is from the official NASA history of what Babbitt and his team did. Instead of running away from the fire consuming the capsule and its astronauts, they ran toward the fire to attempt rescue.
NASA history stated, "Nestled beside an umbilical tower, surrounded by a service structure, and encased in a clean room at Cape Kennedy's Launch Complex 34, spacecraft 012 sat atop a Saturn 1B on Friday morning, 27 January 1967.
Everything was ready for a launch simulation, a vital step in determining whether the spacecraft would be ready to fly the following month."
It is hard for anyone born, say, after 1969, to make sense of what the Apollo 1 fire meant. The Apollo program was the late President John F. Kennedy's vision, "to send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth within the decade."
Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were NASA's steps on the way to realizing Kennedy's vision, and the United States national mission. Apollo 1 was commanded by Ivan "Gus" Grissom, one of the original Mercury astronauts. The venture was heroic and symbolic of the scale of the nation's ambition as it tilted lances with the Soviet space program in a Cold War race to the moon.
The loss of Apollo 1 was a national tragedy that pre-dated the loss of shuttles Challenger and Columbia, and the first warning shot that space shots with humans aboard involved mortal risk every minute of every day.
By 8 a.m. Jan. 27, 1967, there was an army of a thousand men to support three spacesuited astronauts - Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee - who were checking systems to make sure that everything was in order before pulling the plugs.
A variety of tests took the crew and support team through the day into evening.
'All of these men and several others in the vicinity at 6:31 heard a cry over the radio circuit from inside the capsule: 'There is a fire in here.'
'Stunned, pad leader Babbitt looked up from his desk and shouted to Gleaves: 'Get them out of there!'
'As Babbitt spun to reach a squawk box to notify the blockhouse, a sheet of flame flashed from the spacecraft. Then he was hurled to the door by a concussion. In an instant of terror, Babbitt, Gleaves, Reece, and Clemmons fled. In seconds they rushed back, and Gleaves and Clemmons searched the area for gas masks and for fire extinguishers to fight little patches of flame. All four men, choking and gasping in dense smoke, ran in and out of the enclosure, attempting to remove the spacecraft's hatches.
'Approximately 90 seconds after the first report of fire, pad leader Donald Babbitt reported over a headset from the swing arm that his men had begun attempts to open the hatch. Thus the panel that investigated the fire concluded that only one minute elapsed between the first warning of the fire and the rescue attempt.
'For more than five minutes, Babbitt and his North America Aviation crew of James D. Gleaves, Jerry W. Hawkins, Steven B. Clemmons, and L. D. Reece, and NASA's Henry H. Rodgers, Jr., struggled to open the hatch.
'The intense heat and dense smoke drove one after another back, but finally they succeeded. Unfortunately, it was too late. The astronauts were dead. Firemen arrived within three minutes of the hatch opening, doctors soon thereafter.
'A medical board was to determine that the astronauts died of carbon monoxide asphyxia, with thermal burns as contributing causes. . . Fire had destroyed 70% of Grissom's spacesuit, 25% of White's, and 15% of Chaffee's. Doctors treated 27 men for smoke inhalation. Two were hospitalized.'
Babbitt was awarded the National Medal for Exceptional Bravery, one of the nation's highest awards for civilians, after he suffered severe burns on January 27, 1967, while attempting to rescue the astronauts during the Apollo 1 fire.
On Saturday, friends and family remembered what a kind man Babbitt was. They remembered how, after retirement, he and his wife of 62 years, Jeanne, were consistent volunteers for the Friends of the Lancaster Library. They remembered the stories of the Babbitts watching over children growing up in the neighborhood.
Burkhardt, who worked with the Lockheed space shuttle operations team, remembered the day he began work out at Edwards, April 22, 1988.
Diane Lindquist, formerly Cox, who worked with the Lockheed shuttle team, said: "It was the best job I ever had, with the best people. We were one big family."
Of Babbitt, he said, "He was our engineer. He was kind, very intelligent, and up through the ranks of the technicians. He would listen to you, and he made you want to come up with ideas."
"It was his humility," Tanner said, remarking that the Apollo 1 story was never widely known. "He did not have a doctorate. He just knew what to do."
Burkhardt said the Apollo 1 fire is studied to this day as a case history of response to emergencies.
"You can look it up, and you will see Don Babbitt, and it's something. That was an awesome guy."
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I, along with my wife, was Don Babbitt's regular visitor while he was in his assisted living home in Lancaster. We visited him for over one year there.