Showing posts with label Death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Death. Show all posts

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Funeral honors hero of NASA's Apollo fire

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. 

               ###            ###          ###

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."

          ###          ###          ###

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.  



Sunday, July 1, 2012

Is Death a friend?

Yesterday my wife and I attended a funeral for a friend's husband.  He had suffered from Alzheimer's Disease for several years before the moment of death occurred, and his memory departed, leaving his wife, a jewel of a woman, with someone whom she knew. . . but he no longer knew her. 

I give great credit to her for staying with her husband and caring for him in the Alzheimer's facility he was cared for at, even in the face of cross words and unkind thoughts verbally expressed.  Great, great credit.  Difficult to keep with such an unlovely person. . . but by the Grace of God, she did.  The easy approach is to run from and disown such a one. . . and again, to her great credit, she relied on the Grace of God to allow her to love her unlovely husband in the midst of the trial and heartbreak that is Alzheimer's.  That is a great story that she may be proud of to tell others for the rest of her life!

So we attended the funeral at her church.  The pastor there, whom I've not ever met, stood up and offered some words.  Considering what trials her husband went through, and that of the surviving wife present, thinking of the "slow goodbye" which is Alzheimer's, where one's memory eventually fades and is no more, he offered the following thought: "Death can be a friend," the pastor confided to the assembled friends and family in attendance.  He proceeded to say other words in the vein of comforting those present, considering his audience with certain care and forethought.  No words chosen at the last minute from what I could see.  Again, I'm giving this pastor the benefit of the doubt.  I really believe his aim was to be of comfort and encouragement at that moment.  This particular church has gone through a lot of change of late, not much for the better either.  It is now comprised of elderly women as its mainstay, with not many men in attendance anymore.  Not many in their younger years go there anymore, either.  So this church probably deals in death more often than it would like, I would hazard.  Again, I'm seeking to be charitable, especially since this pastor and I have never met or discussed the content of his words spoken yesterday. 

After a nap, my wife and I left for a Gospel Quartet music fest in Bakersfield.  Delightful evening, and loads of unity in the Spirit and hand clapping to boot. . . with moments of funnin' and letting one's hair down!  Wonderful time there.  But I digress.  

As I was driving down the road, I asked my wife, "did you hear that pastor talk about death?"  "Yes," she replied.  "Did you hear what he said about death, though?" I shot back.  "What?" she quizzically mumbled as she relaxed in semisleep with the seat laid back for rest.  

"He said death can be your friend, or death is your friend. . . words like that.  Remember?" I recalled to her.  "Uh, huh. . . I remember that, yes," she said.  

"Now think a minute.  Death is your friend.  What kind of person thinks that kind of thought or says it?" I warbled my forming thoughts out to her.  

"I dunno."

"How about folks overdosing on drugs, suicide victims, people like that?" I pointedly zinged back.  

Ouch. . . 

"You mean. . . " she began as she sleepily formed some thoughts.

"That's right, dear.  This pastor we heard probably meant to say words like 'God was merciful to him by allowing death to finally occur,' but instead it was less precisely said. . . to a point where if one didn't listen closely or know the situation of this man's life or know this pastor well, you might reasonably conclude he believed that death is your friend.  Nothing could be further than the truth, though, right?" I convincingly proffered.  

"Right, honey," she swiftly vocalized to me.  "Death is never good.  How then could it be your friend?"

"Exactly!" I exclaimed.  "You've got it!  Death is never your friend.  In fact, the Scriptures say that Jesus is the victor over Death.  If Jesus defeated death, and Jesus abhors death, how could a state of being that Jesus hates ever be our friend?"

*  *  *

"The thief comes only to kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life and have it abundantly," Jesus told us in John 10:10.  "I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.  Do you believe this?" Jesus asked Martha in John 11:25-26.  I get chills up my spine when I remember these verses from John 11.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:6-10, ESV)

The King James Version renders 2 Corinthians 5:8 as  ". . . to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord."  Rather countercultural, that.  Yep, this present world isn't all what it's cracked up to be, for sure!  Note that the believer is taken from the body, which dies, and is immediately in the Lord's presence.  Pretty neat, eh?  From death to life. . . Jesus is about life!

50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:50-58, ESV)


He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4, ESV)


17   . . .  “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.  (Revelation 1:17b-18, ESV)

I think it's rather evident from the above Scripture passages that Jesus is not a friend of Death.  Instead, he put death away forever and holds the very keys of Death and Hades! 

Is Death a friend?  I think not!  Time to unfriend Death. . . it separates us from the love of God.  Jesus is the friend of sinners, but not of Death.  We need to be that same way. 

Jesus is the author of life. . . and Satan is the author of death. . . God always being good, Satan always being evil.  Goes with the territory.  Those who say, "God took (name of loved one) away from me!" are speaking from uninformed emotion, methinks, and not from searching the Scriptures with all one's heart and soul and mind.  Angry at death?  Me too!  But get angry at Satan, not God.  Satan is the originator of death.  God isn't.