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ST. LOUIS • Astronauts Elliott See Jr. and Charles Bassett II were the lead crew for Gemini IX, a mission scheduled for May 1966. They were to rendezvous with a satellite and give Bassett a space walk, all part of the learning curve in the race to the moon.

See and Bassett flew from Houston to St. Louis on Feb. 28, 1966, for simulator training at McDonnell Aircraft Corp., maker of the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft. Gemini IX was stored inside Building 101, known as Gemini Space Operations.

Fog and rain covered Lambert Field shortly before 9 a.m. See, piloting their T-38 military training jet, approached too high and began a tight swing around the airport. He radioed to fellow astronauts Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan, behind them in another NASA T-38, that he was preparing for a visual landing on the airport's diagonal runway, closer to the McDonnell complex.

Kenneth Stovall, a Union Electric lineman, watched See's jet from a substation just east of the airport. Stovall said its descent looked like a steep, diving bank.

"I heard a roar and I saw a ball of fire," Stovall said.

The T-38 clipped the roof of Building 101 with its right wing. The fuselage skipped twice across the roof, plunged into a construction yard and exploded. Both astronauts were killed instantly. Twelve employees inside the building were injured by ceiling debris.

Stafford and Cernan didn't see the crash and made an instrument landing 14 minutes later.

Astronauts Alan Shepard, America's first man in space, and Donald "Deke" Slayton flew to St. Louis to lead an investigation. Their closed investigative hearing was held in Building 101. On May 27, their report cited deteriorating weather conditions and a descent that was too steep for See to pull out.

One week later, Stafford and Cernan were blasted into orbit on Gemini IX. Cernan walked in space for 129 minutes.

See, 38, had been a civilian test pilot and the married father of two girls. Bassett, 34, an Air Force pilot, left a wife, a daughter and a son.

They were the second and third astronauts to be killed in accidents. It would prove to be a bad stretch for the space program — on Jan. 27, 1967, three astronauts were killed in a flash fire inside an Apollo moon-rocket capsule at Cape Canaveral. All told, eight astronauts would die in earthbound mishaps before Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon on July 20, 1969. NASA wouldn't lose anyone on a space flight until seven astronauts were killed in the destruction of the shuttle Challenger shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986.


 

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