PORTERS NECK, NC (WWAY) -- The Apollo 1 tragedy is a moment in American history that many will not soon forget. Cape Fear native Stephen Clemmons was working as an aircraft technician on the mission that day. Clemmons recalls January 27, 1967, as the worst day of his life.
"We lost our crew that night. We lost the spacecraft. It set us back about 18 months," Clemmons said.
Apollo 1 was scheduled to be the first manned mission of the Apollo program to reach the moon, but that mission never happened. A cabin fire on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral killed all three crew members. Clemmons was with the men that day, serving as a flight technician. He did what he could to save them.
"It shocked us. It floored us badly," Clemmons said.
The US had a goal at that time to be the first to the moon. Clemmons says it was that tunnel vision and anxious mindset that led to the construction flaws and ultimately lethal mistakes.
"We needed to take our time," he said. "The carpenter said, 'You measure twice, cut once.' We were cutting without even looking at the drawings."
Looking ahead, Clemmons says he believes in the future of America's space program.
"I think we did the right thing by closing down the orbital program," he said of the end of the Space Shuttle program.
It took more than 35 years for Clemmons to talk about that fateful day. He still finds it hard to speak about, but he also remembers the good times.
"I loved it," he said. "The people in it were brilliant, very smart. We were doing things. We were accomplishing things."
Thursday, Rep. Mike McIntyre will present Clemmons with the NASA Medal for Bravery for his efforts to save his men that day. Clemmons was already given the honor, but his medal was stolen years ago.