APOLLO 1 – The Forgotten First NASA Disaster

Astronauts Roger Chaffee, Ed White, and Gus Grissom in Apollo 1, 1967
Astronauts Roger Chaffee, Ed White, and Gus Grissom in Apollo 1, 1967

Everyone remembers the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters. We all know the famous Apollo 11 Moon landing and the historic first steps of Neil Armstrong in 1969.  But few outside NASA recall the Apollo 1 Tragedy that happened just 2 years earlier.  On January 27, 1967, during a launch rehearsal at Cape Kennedy, a freak flash fire swept through the Apollo 1 command module with 3 astronauts sealed on board. The three men died inside, despite the best efforts of the launch crew to save them.  But how could this have happened on a simple practice run?

NASA had an intimidating goal before it, set by President Kennedy in 1961, “to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth” by the end of the decade. Earlier Mercury and Gemini flights were the first steps toward meeting that challenge. Apollo would take 3 astronauts all the way to the moon’s surface and back.

This first manned Apollo mission, designated AS-204, would be just an Earth-orbiting test flight.

The Commander was Virgil “Gus” Grissom, an Air Force veteran, mechanical engineer and one of NASA’s first Mercury Seven Astronauts. He was America’s 2nd person in space in 1961, riding aboard the Liberty Bell 7. Grissom then went on to successfully command Gemini 3, the first 2-man Gemini flight, before being selected by NASA for Apollo 1.

Another veteran astronaut, Ed White, was also chosen.  An Air Force Lt. Colonel test pilot, he was the 1st American to make a spacewalk, on Gemini 4 in 1965. The images of White floating above the curved blue Earth, linked by a skinny tether to the spacecraft are unforgettable, as are his words, “I’m coming back in, and it’s the saddest moment of my life.”

The third and last astronaut was Roger Chaffee a seasoned Navy lieutenant commander. Although a rookie in spaceflight, he had spent years supporting the Gemini program since 1963, including CapCom (Capsule Communications) on Gemini 4. He would now finally be getting his first chance to fly in space after five years of waiting.

Two weeks earlier, all 3 astronauts kissed their wives goodbye, hugged their kids, and left Houston for Cape Kennedy in Florida.  They would be taking part in a pre-launch test, within the Command Module mounted atop an unfueled Saturn 1B rocket on launch pad 34. Engineering changes were still in progress as NASA prepared for the test. The plan was to go through the entire countdown sequence.

On Friday, January 27th, the 3 astronauts climbed into their familiar silver space suits.

At 1 p.m,. they road out to the launch tower and took the elevator to the top.  With the help of the launch crew, they climbed into their capsule.  The hatch was then sealed with a heavy ‘thud.’ A number of technical  problems cropped up immediately, which delayed the countdown for 4 hours.  Finally, a failure in communications forced a hold in the count at 5:40 p.m.  A frustrated Grissom shouted through the static, “How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between two buildings?”

By 6:31 pm, Launch Control was ready to pick up the countdown … when ground instruments showed an electrical surge in the AC voltage readings, possibly indicating a short-circuit in the capsule.  Four seconds later came frightening words from the Command Module over the speakers, almost casually from Chaffee: I smell fire.”

Two seconds later, White reports louder, “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.” The fire spreads throughout the small cabin in a matter of seconds. Chaffee shouts this time, “We have a bad fire!” followed by all three shouting as they struggled to get out. The last communication sadly ends 17 seconds after the start of the fire, followed by loss of all capsule telemetry.

The Apollo 1 hatch opened inward and was closed by several latches.  It was held tight by higher interior pressure and required venting before the hatch could be opened. It took a minute and a half to get the hatch open under ideal conditions.  Ed White, in the center seat, had to reach above and behind his shoulders to use a ratchet that would release the first of a series of latches. White made part of a turn with the ratchet before he was overcome by smoke.

Launch technicians ran towards the sealed command module as the capsule ruptured!

White flames and thick smoke billowed out, filling the enclosed entry room. Some feared the fire might set off the launch escape rocket attached atop Apollo’s nose. This might then ignite the launch tower. Many technicians ran, but others grabbed extinguishers and tried to rescue the astronauts. The intense heat and smoke kept forcing them back, but finally after 5 minutes, they opened the hatch. Firemen arrived within 3 minutes and doctors soon afterwards. Unfortunately, it was too late … the 3 astronauts had died.

The entire NASA community was in shock.  There had been NO fatalities during Mercury & Gemini. NASA impounded everything at the launch pad. A medical board eventually determined that the 3 astronauts died of asphyxia, with burns as a contributing factor. Fire had destroyed 70% of Grissom’s spacesuit, 20% of White’s and 15% of Chaffee’s. Doctors treated 27 men at the launch tower for smoke inhalation.

A NASA review board found a stray spark from damaged wires near Grissom’s seat started the fire. Fed by flammable materials such as nylon netting and foam pads, the blaze spread easily.  Because the cabin had been filled with 100% oxygen for many hours, the gas permeated all the material in the cabin.  The fire spread rapidly and the trapped astronauts had little chance of getting the hatch open.

Burnt interior of the Apollo 1 capsule
Burnt interior of the Apollo 1 capsule

The three men had perished probably within the first minute. Ed White, in the center seat, was found with his arms over his head as he struggled with the hatch.  And that hatch turned out to be too difficult to open in an emergency. The astronauts struggled in vain to crack the inward-opening door with the pressure inside the spacecraft higher.

The exhaustive investigation and extensive reworking of the capsule postponed any manned launch of the Saturn for nearly a year.

A number of changes were instigated in the Apollo program, including designing: a) a new hatch which opened outward and could be operated quickly in a matter of seconds, b) removing much of the flammable material and replacing it with self-extinguishing components, c) using a nitrogen-oxygen mixture instead of pure O2 at launch.

In the end, the resulting changes made the Apollo Command Module a highly reliable spacecraft.  With the exception of Apollo 13’s service module failure, it helped make the six Moon missions almost routine. The eventual success of the Apollo program is a tribute to Grissom, White, and Chaffee, whose tragic loss was not in vain.  Lessons learned from Apollo 1 stretch all the way to the Space Shuttle program, the International Space Station (ISS), and SpaceX.

The AS-204 mission was officially names “Apollo 1” in honor of the three astronauts.  NASA honors their sacrifice every January in an annual Day of Remembrance, which also includes the Challenger 1986 and Columbia 2003 Space Shuttle crews. An exhibit honoring the Apollo 1 crew opened at the Kennedy Space Center in 2017, with a special ceremony honoring the three astronauts on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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