Editor’s note: Today marks the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts during a routine test on the launchpad. The test was a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 1 crew — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The goal was to check out the command module, NASA’s first spacecraft that would take astronauts to the Moon.
Following is an excerpt about the fire from the book “Eight Years to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Missions” by Nancy Atkinson. The book tells the unique personal stories of over 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make the Apollo program possible, and is filled with stories of the dedication and perseverance it took to overcome the challenges, hurdles and conflicts of doing things that had never been done before. It provides a glimpse into the lives of some of the hundreds of thousands of people who made it possible to land humans on the Moon. While many of the stories in the book are fun and heart-warming, this excerpt shares the incredibly heart-breaking event that shocked the country and halted the Apollo program as NASA scrambled to figure out what went wrong.
Before the first crewed Apollo launch could take place, a few critical tests remained, and on January 27, 1967, the astronauts needed to participate in a checkout called a “plugs out” test, a full simulation of the Apollo launch countdown, overseen from both the launch control center at Kenney Space Center (KSC) and Mission Control in Houston. The crew would be in the Command Module, on top of the rocket, on the launchpad and to confirm the CSM could function properly on its own internal power. No propellants had been loaded and all the pyrotechnics were disabled, so the test was considered non-hazardous.
Grissom, White and Chaffee boarded the spacecraft shortly after 1 pm Eastern time, wearing their spacesuits and helmets so they could connect to the spacecraft’s oxygen and communication systems, just like during a real launch.
From the beginning, a series of frustrating technical problems surfaced, causing holds in the countdown. When Grissom was connected to the oxygen, he reported an odor like sour buttermilk in his suit. An hour and twenty-minute delay ensued while technicians troubleshot the cause. The smell eventually dissipated, and finally, the pad crew sealed the spacecraft hatch, with the air in the capsule replaced with pure oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch, per NASA’s standard atmosphere inside all US spacecraft sitting on a launchpad.
As countdown resumed, a communications issue developed with Grissom’s microphone; it couldn’t be turned off. Additional problems led to frustrating periods of garbled communications and static between the crew, the Operations and Checkout Building, and the Launch Complex 34 blockhouse. Various countdown functions were performed as communications permitted, but the frequent delays meant the test was running long.
Finally, an almost complete failure in communications forced another hold in the count. At 6:20 pm, controllers announced the count would resume in ten minutes.
At 6:30 p.m., the loop crackled with static, then more garbled communications from the launch control room. Grissom said, “How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?”
With only static as a reply, White said, “They can’t hear a thing you’re saying.”
“Jesus Christ,” Grissom muttered, and then he repeated his query to the flight controllers, wondering how they were going to get to the Moon.
In Houston, it was 5:30 pm Central Time. Gary Johnson was monitoring the plugs-out test, sitting at his console in the Staff Support Room (SSR), an auxiliary room adjacent to the Mission Operations Control Center (MOCR) where experts provided technical support to the flight controllers. Johnson worked with the EECOM, the Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Manager, and was one of the few people still in the SSR. With the test going long, most everyone from the support team had gone home for the day.
At 5:31, Johnson’s console indicated an electrical spike from the CM. A few seconds later, he heard some shouting on his headset, then a scream of fire, and then sounds of KSC personnel trying to communicate with the crew.
Gerry Griffin was standing in the MOCR by his Guidance Navigation and Control console. During the hold to fix the comm problems, most of the flight controllers had left the room to take a break, but Griffin remained and for some reason left his headset on. He heard some noise, like static. Then soon, the word ‘fire’ from the crew.
Guidance Officer Dutch von Ehrenfried sat nearby. “Dutch, ‘did you hear that?” Griffin said with alarm, and then yelled to the other controllers there might be a fire on the launchpad. It took several minutes to realize the gravity of what was going on at the Cape.
The fire was inside the Command Module.
Back in the SSR, Johnson was still listening in on his headset to all the loops, trying to get any information he could. “Pretty soon Chris Kraft came running into the SSR and said we need to play back our data so everyone can review it,” Johnson said, “and then he told us no phone calls out of the building. We knew something crazy was going on out at the Cape, but I kept thinking since the crew was in their spacesuits, they should be OK. I was holding out hope.”
Then, after several minutes he heard the Cape test conductor tell Kraft to go a private phone. Johnson’s heart sank. He knew that meant the news was bad.
The news was worse than anyone could possibly imagine.
At the same moment Johnson’s console indicated the short, a wire sparked inside the spacecraft. In the pure oxygen environment, the fire spread throughout the cabin in a matter of seconds. On the open mic, Chaffee said something that sounded like “flames.”
Two seconds later White yelled, “Hey, we’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” and then Chaffee shouted, “We’ve got a bad fire, We’re burning up…..” Then came screams. Then silence.
The communications loop at the Cape came alive, “Hey crew! Can you egress at this time, confirm? Pad leader! Get in there and help them! Gus, can you read us? Pad Leader, can we get a confirmation?”
A closed-circuit TV was in the blockhouse 218 feet below the burning Command Module, showing a live feed of the interior of the spacecraft. Horrified ground-support technicians watched the burst of flames envelope the cockpit as Ed White attempted to open the inner hatch. Technicians right outside the spacecraft in a small enclosure in the Service Structure quickly tried to open the hatch, but suddenly the spacecraft hull ruptured and a wall of fire and burning debris whooshed out, hurling the technicians backward. Other technicians in the on the same level as the spacecraft ran from the catwalk into the White Room, but thick black clouds smoke billowed out, filling the White Room and two levels of Pad 34’s service structure with a thick carbon monoxide haze.
Some of the technicians pressed towards the spacecraft but they began to pass out from the fumes; the next wave of rescuers from lower levels came up and grabbed the available gas masks. Still, the technicians passed out. The masks were designed for filtering out toxic fumes from propellant and were not the closed, oxygen-providing masks that were needed at this crucial moment. The remaining technicians made a plan: they formed a relay, taking gulps of air and holding their breath as long as they could to go out to the burning spacecraft and try to open the hatch.
Then a new danger became evident. Someone in the Control Center feared CM might rupture, or the fire might set off the launch escape system atop the entire spacecraft stack. Either event could ignite the entire service structure. Some technicians left while they could, but others remained, helping the injured, trying to rescue the astronauts.
Roughly five minutes after the fire started, the final relay of technicians opened the searing hatch. The fire had quenched itself when atmospheric air rushed into the CM through the ruptured hull.
The astronauts were dead. The tubes connecting their spacesuits to the oxygen melted in the extreme heat, and the astronauts were asphyxiated from toxic fumes, overcome from the flames and heat. The time from the first indication of the fire to the final crew communication and loss of all telemetry was 17 seconds.
Lead image caption: The Apollo 1 prime crewmembers for the first manned Apollo Mission prepare to enter their spacecraft inside the altitude chamber at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in 1966. Entering the hatch is astronaut Virgil I. Grissom, commander; behind him is astronaut Roger B. Chaffee, lunar module pilot; standing at the left with chamber technicians is astronaut Edward H. White II, command module pilot. Credit: NASA