The Apollo 1 Tragedy: 50 Years Later

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The <i>Apollo 1</i> Tragedy: 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago today, at precisely 11:00 a.m. ET, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee entered the Apollo 1 spacecraft on launch pad 34 at Cape Kennedy. They weren’t planning on going anywhere. The Apollo 1 launch wasn’t scheduled until February 21; the astronauts were merely conducting a test of the spacecraft. The “plugs out” test was just another routine part of the days and weeks leading up to launch, when the hatch was closed, the spacecraft fully pressurized with pure oxygen on the launch pad, and all the umbilicals were removed to see how the spacecraft performed under its own power.


It wasn’t a secret around NASA that Apollo 1 was flawed. The spacecraft had been shipped to Florida with over 100 unresolved critical engineering issues. There was a story going around that Gus Grissom, displeased with North American (the contractor building the Apollo command modules), had even hung a lemon on the simulator. It was getting closer and closer to launch, and the kinks still hadn’t been ironed out. The biggest issue today was communication: Gus, Ed and Roger could barely hear people just a few buildings away because of static on the comm lines.

2. crew on 1-27.jpg The crew enters the Apollo 1 spacecraft before the plugs out test on January 27, 1967. Photo courtesy of NASA

The test went on for hours, with mostly minor issues. The astronauts were doing another regular checklist run through when engineers noticed a spike in voltage and an increase in oxygen flow to the cabin. It was 6:31 pm.

Then, through a burst of static, came one clear word: “Fire!”

The transmission was too badly garbled to make out exactly what was being said, or even who was saying it. But what was clear was that the cockpit was on fire: the flames visible through the hatch window were enough to confirm that much.

The engineers who were in the White Room, the part of the launch tower that allows the astronauts to enter the spacecraft, rushed toward the command module. They began trying to open the hatch door, which was constructed to swing inwards, towards the astronauts.
Fifteen seconds after the first report of fire, the pressure in the cabin had approached a critical level. Flames burst through the command module’s access panels and grew to engulf two levels of the launch tower. The engineers working on the hatch were thrown backward by the force of the fire’s pressure.

It took five minutes for the engineers to finally remove the doors of the spacecraft and confirm the crew had been lost. The high heat, smoke, and poor visibility meant that recovery couldn’t begin immediately. Once it finally did (6 hours after the accident), it took and an hour and a half for the bodies of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee to be recovered from the burned out husk of Apollo 1. The heat of the fire had fused the astronauts to the cabin’s nylon interior. The official cause of death was asphyxiation.

In Mission Control, and around the country, there was shock and silence.

4. capsule.jpg The burned exterior of the Apollo 1 capsule. Photo courtesy of NASA

How could something like this have happened? It’s one thing to lose astronauts in space, during a mission. There is always that risk when it comes to space flight. But this was just a test. A test that had been done so many times before. What went wrong?

NASA spent the next year investigating just that. All plans for Apollo were put on hold, and the Apollo 1 accident review board looked over every detail to understand the cause of the fire. The charred spacecraft was taken apart screw by screw over the course of two months, using an identical command module as a template for doing so.

5. disassembly.jpg The disassembly of Apollo 1. Photo courtesy of NASA

The cause of the fire was likely a spark near Gus’s feet, though the review board was never able to pinpoint exactly where and how it started. There were multiple weak points in wiring that could have been the culprit; the Apollo command module was the most complex spacecraft to ever be constructed. There were bundles of wires snaking through every part of the cabin, and some of them had become frayed.

The pure oxygen environment is what allowed the fire to spread so quickly. Because the astronauts were doing this test on the ground, the oxygen pressure had to be much higher than during launch or in space in order to push any lingering nitrogen out of the cabin. The control system for a pure oxygen environment was simpler than a (less flammable) nitrogen-oxygen mix. As a result, the fire spread in an instant and burned extremely hot (over 1000 degrees F). Materials that were already flammable became extreme fire hazards under that kind of pressure.

The hatch design, though, is what sealed the astronauts’ fate. At the pressure of the cabin, combined with the pressure from the fire, there was no possible way for White (or the engineers) to open a hatch that swung inward. It took anywhere from 40 to 70 seconds to open the hatch under regular circumstances; the astronauts didn’t have close to that amount of time. Some of the engineers claimed that they had seen Ed White’s hand in the cockpit window as he was trying in vain to open the door. The position in which his body was found seems to confirm this.

Interestingly, North American had suggested an explosive hatch for the Apollo modules, and NASA had rejected it—because of Gus Grissom. On his Mercury 7 flight in 1961 (Gus was from the first crop of astronauts selected by NASA; rumor was that, if he’d survived, he would have been the captain on the first moon landing mission), Grissom’s explosive hatch triggered accidentally after his water landing. The astronaut almost drowned, and the capsule sank. Many initially suspected that Gus had panicked and activated the explosive hatch too early, but a review board confirmed his side of the story.

7. apollo 7.JPG Apollo 7 on the launch pad. Photo courtesy of NASA

The loss of Apollo 1 and her crew was a national tragedy that could have been the end of our space program. It took almost two years for NASA to return to flight—Apollo 7 successfully launched on October 11, 1968 (Apollos 2-6 were unmanned test launches) from the same launch pad as Apollo 1. That launch pad was then retired from service, dismantled, and now holds a plaque commemorating Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.

9. launch complex 34.jpg Launch Complex 34, as it is today. Photo by Swapna Krishna.

Gus Grissom was the second American to fly in space. Ed White was the first American to conduct a spacewalk. Roger Chaffee was a rookie, but liked and respected enough by his peers and management to be chosen for the historic first Apollo flight. These men were heroes.

What we learned from the Apollo 1 shaped the rest of the space program to come. It wasn’t the last tragedy—we lost Challenger and Columbia in the decades following. But without the fire, and the loss of three truly great astronauts, the Apollo program would have unfolded very differently. Management practices at NASA also bore some of the blame for the accident; there was too much emphasis on schedules and meeting deadlines. The command module was also completely redesigned; the original ship was not space worthy and could not have flown as it was.

In his memoir, Gus Grissom says, “If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis, only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men.” On this day, on the 50th anniversary of their deaths, we remember these Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, and the ultimate sacrifice they made to ensure that we reach the stars.

Ad Astra Per Astara : “Through hardships to the stars.”

Top image: Courtesy of NASA.

Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor, and giant space/sci-fi geek.