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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Playwrights Need Not Apply

The Rocket


            A black screen. Gradually we begin to hear faraway, echoing voices of people speaking over radios, a lot of techno jibber-jabber. Gradually one man’s voice FADES IN to prominence.

            This is Apollo-Saturn launch control at T-10:00 and holding. This is the latest in a series of holds that we’ve experienced in this countdown. Currently we are attempting to solve some communications difficulties between the blockhouse and Apollo 1.

Title reading THE ROCKET comes on screen.


The launch control center is crowded with men in slacks, white shirts and black ties. Here and there are some air force officers and a few men in suits. Some are also dressed in coveralls (white). Two of the men in suits are DEKE SLAYTON and Werner von Braun. CUT TO a shot of a man’s arm reaching forward towards a coffee pot and pouring some of the over-brewed brew into a white mug. We FOLLOW the man as he returns to his console and takes a long pull of the coffee.

Jeez Mike how many cups is that? Five?

Engineer B
Seven. Cripes, when is this damn thing going to be over? I already had to call the wife and tell her to put the roast in the fridge.

Cut to shot of von Braun’s back as he looks through one of the periscopes in the room. Deke Slayton comes up to him and taps him on the shoulder.

Deke Slayton
You know, you don’t have to stay here Doc. The Saturn’s your baby and that’s not what’s giving us headaches.

Von Braun
Perhaps Deke, perhaps. But since everyone else is in for the long haul, I’ll stay as well.

CUT to shot of engineers working at consoles. One of them is trying to understand something that the astronauts aboard Apollo 1 are saying.

Jim, can you understand a thing they’re saying?

Not a one. Holy smokes this is a mess.

Don’t let the bosses here that. (straightens as another transmission comes in, he sighs) Say again Apollo? Did not copy your last.

CUT to:

We pan up the massive red launch gantries encasing Apollo 1’s mighty Saturn IB rocket. CUT to:

Techs suited in white overall clean garments surround the Apollo 1 capsule, cocooned in its clean room at the top of the launch gantry. The harsh lights reflect off the moonship’s metallic hull, the Stars and Stripes and the block letters UNITED STATES gleam. WE cut to another shot of the room and the techs working but this time we can clearly see one of the capsule windows. We can see the astronauts inside. WE ZOOM forward just a little bit towards the window. (Window 1, left-hand side) CUT to:

A large panel fitted with switches, gauges, guidance instruments and the digital computer display takes up the interior of the Apollo 1. The three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee are packed in shoulder to shoulder, wearing their brilliantly white pressure suits. Close Up of Grissom.

Did not copy your last Apollo.

Guys, how are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between three buildings?

Some garbled transmissions. The astronauts are clearly frustrated.

Rog, what time is it?

(looks at his watch) Nearly 6:30.

Five and a half hours…dammit to hell.

Can you guys talk to each other up there in the Command Module?

White rolls his eyes.

Son of a bitch. (dully)

I said, how are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings!

CUT to:

SHOT of Deke and von Braun.

This has been going on for more than five hours and we’re still holding. I’m starting to hear rumbles of cancelling the test. If we have to reset and restart…

Von Braun
I know. It will push the schedule back again. I know that the Director wants us to start flying soon but I am becoming a little concerned with the pace the program is moving at.

If we can just get Apollo 1 off the ground and flying, maybe they’ll ease up a bit.

CUT to engineers at consoles. CLOSE up of some gauges. They spike dramatically.

Engineer C
‘Nother electrical surge.

He writes it down. Nothing to worry about apparently. CUT to:

The astronauts are working. Close up of the small space between Grissom and White. A thin, almost innocent-looking tendril of gray smoke curls up from between the couches. CUT to CLOSE up of Ed White from the right side. He is punching in commands to the CMC (command module computer). The tendril of smoke rises up and curls against the control panels.


White looks over at him and Chaffee points past him. White turns to look and sees that Grissom as levered himself onto his right side, facing White. He’s looking down at something. CLOSE up of Grissom’s face. He stares down, horrified.

Oh my god.

CUT to:

The people in the Blockhouse are tired and hungry but they soldier on, professionally putting aside their own needs and desires to complete the test. Everything seems normal until--

Grissom (OS)

Everyone stops what they’re doing and gaze up at the television monitors showing the interior of the CM. The crew is moving frantically. REACTION SHOT of von Braun and Slayton.

Chaffee (OS)
We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!

CLOSE up of the PAO officer who looks stunned.

Public Affairs Officer
18:31, fire in the spacecraft

Slayton bolts, heading for the enormous steel door at the back of the blockhouse. He rushes out of it, White’s words echoing through the room as he runs:

Fire in the spacecraft!

CUT to:

Slayton rushes out of the blockhouse and gazes up in horror at the non-visible capsule at the top of the gantry. CUT to:

The cabin is engulfed in flame and smoke, mostly smoke. White lays back with his arms over his head, frantically trying to get the hatch open. Grissom is trying to help him but a blast of flame sends him reeling back. Chaffee is staring in wide, bulging-eyed, slack-jawed horror at what is happening.

We’ve got a bad fire in here! We’re burning up! (face contorts in agony) GET US OUTTA HERE!!

He cuts off in a scream of pain as flames engulf the frame. DISSOLVE to shots of the empty, charred CM interior. A few lights wink feebly in the gloom and smoky murk.

Von Braun (VO)
When we finally opened the hatch, the sight that greeted us was… monstrous. We could not find them initially through the dense smoke. Their suits had been partly melted, the fire had burned so hot. Gus and Ed’s suits had actually fused together. It was a small comfort to learn, later, that they had actually died of asphyxia due to the toxic smoke, not the heat. They estimated that they were gone no more than seventeen seconds after Roger’s last transmission. It took the engineers five minutes to open the hatch. Five minutes…

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