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.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL – NASA unveiled a new tribute exhibit honoring three fallen astronaut heroes 50 years to the day of the Apollo 1 tragedy on January 27, 1967 when the three man crew perished in a flash fire on the launch pad during a capsule test that was not considered to be dangerous.
The Apollo 1 prime crew comprising NASA astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee were killed during routine practice countdown testing when a fire suddenly erupted inside the cockpit as they were strapped to their seats in their Apollo command module capsule, on a Friday evening at 6:31 p.m. on January 27, 1967.
“It’s been 50 years since the crew of Apollo 1 perished in a fire at the launch pad, but the lives, accomplishments and heroism of the three astronauts are celebrated in a dynamic, new tribute that is part museum, part memorial and part family scrapbook,” says a NASA narrative that aptly describes the exhibit and the memorial ceremony I attended at the Apollo/Saturn V Center at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017 on behalf of Universe Today.
It was the first disaster with a human crew and the worst day in NASA’s storied history to that point.
The tribute is named called “Ad Astra Per Aspera – A Rough Road Leads to the Stars.”
At the tribute dedication ceremony Kennedy Space Center Director and former astronaut Bob Cabana said the families of the fallen crew gave their approvals and blessing to the efforts that would at last tell the story of Apollo 1 to all generations – those who recall it and many more to young or not yet born to remember the tragedy of the early days of America’s space program.
“It’s long overdue,” said KSC center director and former astronaut Bob Cabana at the KSC dedication ceremony to family, friends and invited guests colleagues. “I’m proud of the team that created this exhibit.”
“Ultimately, this is a story of hope, because these astronauts were dreaming of the future that is unfolding today,” said Cabana. Generations of people around the world will learn who these brave astronauts were and how their legacies live on through the Apollo successes and beyond.”
The exhibit “showcases clothing, tools and models that define the men as their parents, wives and children saw them as much as how the nation viewed them.”
The main focus was to introduce the astronauts to generations who never met them and may not know much about them or the early space program, says NASA.
“This lets you now meet Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee as members of special families and also as members of our own family,” said NASA’s Luis Berrios, who co-led the tribute design that would eventually involve more than 100 designers, planners and builders to realize.
“You get to know some of the things that they liked to do and were inspired by. You look at the things they did and if anyone does just one of those things, it’s a lifetime accomplishment and they did all of it and more.”
The crew and the Apollo 1 command module were stacked atop the Saturn 1B rocket at Launch Complex 34 on what is now Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
During the “plugs out” test the Saturn 1B rocket was not fueled. But the fatal flaw was the atmosphere of pure oxygen for the astronauts to breath inside the sealed Apollo 1 command module which was pressurized to 16.7 psi.
Another significantly contributing fatal flaw was the inward opening three layered hatch that took some 90 seconds to open under the best of conditions.
After working all afternoon through the practice countdown and encountering numerous problems, something went terribly awry. Without warning a flash fire erupted in the cockpit filled with 100 percent oxygen and swiftly spread uncontrollably creating huge flames licking up the side of the capsule, acrid smoke and a poisonous atmosphere that asphyxiated, burned and killed the crew.
With the scorching temperatures spiking and pressures rapidly rising in a closed system, the capsule exploded some 20 seconds after the fire started. And because of the pressure buildup inside with flames licking up the sides and the toxic atmosphere generated from burning materials, the crew succumbed and could not turn the latch to pull open the hatch against the pressure.
The pad crew tried bravely in vain to save them, fighting heavy smoke and fire and fearing that the attached launch abort system on top of the capsule would ignite and kill them all too.
An investigation would determine that the fire was likely caused by a spark from frayed wiring, perhaps originating under Grissom’s seat.
“An electrical short circuit inside the Apollo Command Module ignited the pure oxygen environment and within a matter of seconds all three Apollo 1 crewmembers perished,” NASA concluded.
NASA and contractor North American Aviation completely redesigned the capsule with major engineering changes including an atmosphere of 60 percent oxygen and 40 percent nitrogen at 5 psi blower pressure, new hatch that could open outwards in 5 seconds, removing flammable materials among many others that would make the Apollo spacecraft much safer for the upcoming journeys to the moon.
The multi-layed hatch serves as the centerpiece of the tribute exhibit. No piece of Apollo 1 has ever before been put on public display. Alongside the old hatch, the new hatch is displayed that was used on all the remaining Apollo missions.
Display cases highlights the lives and careers of the three astronauts in these NASA descriptions.
Gus Grissom was “one of NASA’s Original Seven astronauts who flew the second Mercury mission, a hunting jacket and a pair of ski boots are on display, along with a small model of the Mercury spacecraft and a model of an F-86 Sabre jet like the one he flew in the Korean War. A slide rule and engineering drafts typify his dedication to detail.”
“The small handheld maneuvering thruster that Ed White II used to steer himself outside his Gemini capsule during the first American spacewalk features prominently in the display case for the West Point graduate whose athletic prowess nearly equaled his flying acumen. An electric drill stands alongside the “zip gun,” as he called the thruster.”
“It was great to juxtaposition it with a drill which was also a tool that Ed loved to use,” Berrios said. “He had a tremendous passion for making things for his family.”
“Roger Chaffee, for whom Apollo 1 would have been his first mission into space, was an esteemed Naval aviator who became a test pilot in his drive to qualify as an astronaut later. Displayed are board games he played with his wife and kids on rare evenings free of training.”
Grissom, White and Chaffee composed NASA’s first three person crew following the one man Mercury program and two man Gemini program, that had just concluded in November 1966 with Gemini 12.
The trio had been scheduled to blastoff on February 21, 1967 on a 14 day long mission in Earth orbit to thoroughly check out the Apollo command and service modules.
Apollo 1 was to be the first launch in NASA’s Apollo moon landing program initiated by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Apollo 1 was planned to pave the way to the Moon so that succeeding missions would eventually “land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before this decade is out” as Kennedy eloquently challenged the nation to do.
I remember seeing the first news flashes about the Apollo 1 fire on the TV as a child, as it unfolded on the then big three networks. It is indelibly marked in my mind. This new exhibit truly tells the story of these astronaut heroes vividly to those with distant memories and those with little or no knowledge of Apollo 1.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Chances are that if you have lived on this planet for the past half-century, you’ve heard of NASA. As the agency that is in charge of America’s space program, they put a man on the Moon, launched the Hubble Telescope, helped establish the International Space Station, and sent dozens of probes and shuttles into space.
But do you know what the acronym NASA actually stands for? Well, NASA stands for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As such, it oversees America’s spaceflight capabilities and conducts valuable research in space. However, NASA also has various programs on Earth dedicated to flight, hence why the term “Aeronautics” appears in the agency’s name.
The process of forming NASA began in the early 1950’s with the development of rocket planes – like the Bell X-1 – and the desire to launch physical satellites. However, it was not until the launch of Sputnik 1 – the first artificial satellite into space that was deployed by the Soviets on October 4th, 1957 – that efforts to develop an American space program truly began.
Fearing that Sputnik represented a threat to national security and America’s technological leadership, Congress urged then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower to take immediate action. This result in an agreement whereby a federal organization similar to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – which was established in 1915 to oversee aeronautical research – would be created.
On July 29th, 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which officially established NASA. When it began operations on October 1st, 1958, NASA absorbed NACA and its 8,000 employees. It was also given an annual budget of US $100 million, three major research laboratories (Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory) and two small test facilities.
Elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the United States Naval Research Laboratory were also incorporated into NASA. A significant contribution came from the work of the Army Ballistic Missie Agency (ABMA), which had been working closely with Wernher von Braun – the leader of Germany’s rocket program during WWII – at the time.
In December 1958, NASA also gained control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a contractor facility operated by the California Institute of Technology. By 1959, President Eisenhower officially approved of A NASA seal, which is affectionately referred to as the “meatball” logo because of the orbs included in the design.
NASA has since been responsible for the majority of the manned and unmanned American missions that have been sent into space. Their efforts began with the development of the X-15, a hypersonic jet plane that NASA had taken over from the NACA. As part of the program, twelve pilots were selected to fly the X-15, and achieve new records for both speed and maximum altitude reached.
A total of 199 flights were made between 1959 and 1968, resulting in two official world records being made. The first was for the highest speed ever reached by a manned craft – Mach 6.72 or 7,273 km/h (4,519 mph) – while the second was for the highest altitude ever achieved, at 107.96 km (354,200 feet).
The X-15 program also employed mechanical techniques used in the later manned spaceflight programs, including reaction control system jets, space suits, horizon definition for navigation, and crucial reentry and landing data. However, by the early 60’s, NASA’s primary concern was winning the newly-declared “Space Race” with the Soviets by putting a man into orbit.
This began with the Project Mercury, a program that was taken over from the US Air Force and which ran from 1959 until 1963. Designed to send a man into space using existing rockets, the program quickly adopted the concept launching a ballistic capsules into orbit. The first seven astronauts, nicknamed the “Mercury Seven“, were selected from from the Navy, Air Force and Marine test pilot programs.
On May 5th, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space aboard the Freedom 7 mission. John Glenn became the first American to be launched into orbit by an Atlas launch vehicle on February 20th, 1962, as part of Friendship 7. Glenn completed three orbits, and three more orbital flights were made, culminating in L. Gordon Cooper’s 22-orbit flight aboard Faith 7, which flew on May 15th and 16th, 1963.
Project Gemini: Project Gemini, which began in 1961 and ran until 1966, aimed at developing support for Project Apollo (which also began in 1961). This involved the development of long-duration space missions, extravehicular activity (EVA), rendezvous and docking procedures, and precision Earth landing. By 1962, the program got moving with the development of a series of two-man spacecraft.
The first flight, Gemini 3, went up on March 23rd, 1965 and was flown by Gus Grissom and John Young. Nine missions followed in 1965 and 1966, with spaceflights lasting for nearly fourteen days while crews conducting docking and rendezvous operations, EVAs, and gathered medical data on the effects of weightlessness on humans.
And then there was the Project Apollo, which began in 1961 and ran until 1972. Due to the Soviets maintaining a lead in the space race up until this point, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress on May 25th, 1961 to commit the federal government to a program to land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. With a price tag of $20 billion (or an estimated $205 billion in present-day US dollars), it was the most expensive space program in history.
The program relied on the use of Saturn rockets as launch vehicles, and spacecraft that were larger than either the Mercury or Gemini capsules – consisting of a command and service module (CSM) and a lunar landing module (LM). The program got off to a rocky start when, on January 27th, 1967, the Apollo 1 craft experienced an electrical fire during a test run. The fire destroyed the capsule and killed the crew of three, consisting of Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, Roger B. Chaffee.
The second manned mission, Apollo 8, brought astronauts for the first time in a flight around the Moon in December of 1968. On the next two missions, docking maneuvers that were needed for the Moon landing were practiced. And finally, the long-awaited Moon landing was made with theApollo 11mission on July 20th, 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon while pilot Michael Collins observed.
Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the Moon, the last in December 1972. Throughout these six Apollo spaceflights, a total of twelve men walked on the Moon. These missions also returned a wealth of scientific data, not to mention 381.7 kilograms (842 lb) of lunar samples to Earth. The Moon landing marked the end of the space race, but Armstrong declared it a victory for “mankind” rather than just the US.
Skylab and the Space Shuttle Program:
After Project Apollo, NASA’s efforts turned towards the creation of an orbiting space station and the creation of reusable spacecraft. In the case of the former, this took the form of Skylab, America’s first and only independently-built space station. Conceived of in 1965, the station was constructed on Earth and launched on May 14th, 1973 atop the first two stages of a Saturn V rocket.
Skylab was damaged during its launch, losing its thermal protection and one electricity-generating solar panels. This necessitated the first crew to rendezvous with the station to conduct repairs. Two more crews followed, and the station was occupied for a total of 171 days during its history of service. This ended in 1979 with the downing of the station over the Indian Ocean and parts of southern Australia.
By the early 70s, a changing budget environment forced NASA to begin researching reusable spacecraft, which resulted in the Space Shuttle Program. Unlike previous programs, which involved small space capsules being launched on top of multistage rockets, this program centered on the use of vehicles that were launchable and (mostly) reusable.
Its major components were a spaceplane orbiter with an external fuel tank and two solid-fuel launch rockets at its side. The external tank, which was bigger than the spacecraft itself, was the only major component that was not reused. Six orbiters were constructed in total, named Space Shuttle Atlantis, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and Enterprise.
Over the course of 135 missions, which ran from 1983 to 1998, the Space Shuttles performed many important tasks. These included carrying the Spacelab into orbit – a joint effort with the European Space Agency (ESA) – running supplies to Mir and the ISS (see below), and the launch and successful repair of the Hubble Space Telescope (which took place in 1990 and 1993, respectively).
The Shuttle program suffered two disasters during the course of its 15 years of service. The first was the Challenger disaster in 1986, while the second – the Columbia disaster – took place in 2003. Fourteen astronauts were lost, as well as the two shuttles. By 2011, the program was discontinued, the last mission ending on July 21st, 2011 with the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center.
The ISS and Recent Projects:
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, crew members were delivered exclusively by Soyuz spacecraft. The Soyuz remains docked with the station while crews perform their six-month long missions, and then returns them to Earth. Until another US manned spacecraft is ready – which is NASA is busy developing – crew members will travel to and from the ISS exclusively aboard the Soyuz.
The ISS has been continuously occupied for the past 15 years, having exceeded the previous record held by Mir; and has been visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 15 different nations. The ISS program is expected to continue until at least 2020, but may be extended until 2028 or possibly longer, depending on the budget environment.
Future of NASA:
A few years ago, NASA celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Originally designed to ensure American supremacy in space, it has since adapted to changing conditions and political climates. It’s accomplishments have also been extensive, ranging from launching the first American artificial satellites into space for scientific and communications purposes, to sending probes to explore the planets of the Solar System.
But above all else, NASA’s greatest accomplishments have been in sending human beings into space, and being the agency that conducted the first manned missions to the Moon. In the coming years, NASA hopes to build on that reputation, bringing an asteroid closer to Earth so we can study it more closely, and sending manned missions to Mars.
On this day (Jan. 27) in 1967, NASA astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in a pad fire inside of the Apollo 1 spacecraft that was supposed to lift off only a month hence. The tragedy shocked NASA, which was then aiming for manned landings on the moon, and caused an in-depth investigation into the spacecraft’s construction and the cause of the fire.
Above, you can see one of the first news reports after the fire took place, from ABC’s Jules Bergman and a correspondent at “Cape Kennedy” (which is called Cape Canaveral today, referring to an area adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center where the launch was supposed to take place.) “It was too late from the beginning,” Bergman said in the report, referring to the frantic effort to get the astronauts out of their burning spacecraft.
An investigation determined that a spark flew from somewhere inside of the spacecraft and easily ignited in the pure-oxygen atmosphere, fuelled by fire-friendly materials inside the spacecraft. The astronauts were unable to get out quickly because the hatch was complicated to open. The redesigned Apollo spacecraft featured a swift-to-open hatch, fewer flammable materials, covered electrical connections (to mitigate against short-circuits), and a mixed atmosphere of oxygen and nitrogen on the ground.
Safety measures arising from the tragedy did help with saving astronauts on other flights, notably Apollo 13. That mission saw an oxygen tank explode en route to the moon in April 1970.
Every year, NASA has a day of remembrance to commemorate lost crews. The Apollo 1 anniversary marks a solemn week in the agency, as it comes one day before the anniversary of the 1986 Challenger explosion that killed seven astronauts (Jan. 28) and a few days before the 2003 anniversary of the Columbia shuttle breakup, which killed another seven people (Feb. 1).
Four cosmonauts have died during spaceflight, all upon re-entry: Vladimir Komarov (during Soyuz 1 on April 24, 1967) and Georgi Dobrovolskiy, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov (during Soyuz 11 on June 30, 1971).
[/caption] Note: To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, for 13 days, Universe Today will feature “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13,” discussing different turning points of the mission with NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill.
“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
It’s hard to chronicle any of the Apollo flights without mentioning the Apollo 1 fire. And while many believe the Apollo program perhaps wouldn’t have succeeded without that disaster, the sacrifice made by Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee definitely saved the crew of Apollo 13.
“Among the early space missions, I’ve always believed that the greatest courage was needed by their first crews,” said Apollo engineer Jerry Woodfill. “Whether it was Al Shepard, the Apollo 1 crew, or shuttle astronauts John Young or Bob Crippen, the most likely danger would be the first time any new space craft was launched into space. Flaws in design or manufacture could very well be fatal during maiden missions.”
On January 27, 1967, during a test on the launch pad with the crew on board, tragedy struck when a flash fire started in the command module. With the pure oxygen environment inside the capsule, the fire quickly proved fatal for the crew before they or workers at the launch pad could get the hatch open. Although the ignition source of the fire was never conclusively identified, the astronauts’ deaths were attributed to a wide range of design and construction flaws in the early Apollo Command Module. The manned phase of the project was delayed for twenty months while these problems were fixed.
“To suggest the dire event of losing three brave astronauts contributing to Apollo 13’s rescue seems almost ludicrous,” said Woodfill, “but the evidence is striking. What Grissom, White and Chaffee contributed to the rescue of Apollo 13 makes them even more heroic than they were when they gave their lives so that men could go to the moon.”
The irony of the whole situation involves the hatch. Following Gus Grissom’s near fatal drowning when his Mercury capsule sank, the Apollo hatch had been redesigned to avoid the kind of unexpected actuation thought to have caused Grissom’s “Liberty Bell 7” to sink.
“Unfortunately, it led to a hatch impossible to open before the Apollo 1 crew expired,” said Woodfill. “Nevertheless, circumstances used Gus, Ed, and Roger’s sacrifice to save other crews in route to the Moon.”
NASA fire-proofed all future Apollo vehicles with non-flammable materials, used a pad atmosphere of a nitrogen/oxygen mix, and coated of all electrical connections to avoid short-circuits.
“Every switch contact and wire was coated with a moisture proofing substance called conformal coating,” said Woodfill. “Were it not for fire-proofing the Apollo command and service modules, Apollo 13, likely, could not have survived reentry. The cold, damp reentry module interior faced extreme condensation of water vapor from the astronauts’ breath. Droplets of water formed behind the display panels.”
Woodfill said when Apollo 13’s switches were activated for reentry, the interior would surely have burst into flame, were it not for the fireproofing. Condensed water droplets might have short-circuited panel switches, circuit breakers, and connector wiring.
Woodfill said America might never have landed a man on the Moon without Apollo 1. If a fire had occurred on the way to the Moon, it might have ended the will to land men there. “Imagine the horror of the world at such an event,” said Woodfill, “hearing the crew’s painful cries from deep space, ‘We’ve got a fire in the spacecraft.’”
Apollo 1 and the fireproofing of future Apollo spacecraft prevented such an event.
A favorite quote of many managers of the Apollo program, Woodfill said, is from President Theodore Roosevelt, the one posted at the top of this article.
“In a sense, the Apollo One mission was altogether different from Challenger, Columbia, and Apollo 13,” said Woodfill. “No one had dared such a mighty thing as to man the first Apollo spacecraft into orbit. And it, in this case, was fraught with suffering, failure and defeat, rather than a glorious triumph and victory.”
But later, it allowed for great triumph with the success of the Apollo program, and a defying of the odds of the Apollo 13 crew’s survival.
Tomorrow, Part 8: What the Explosion Didn’t Do
Additional articles from the “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13” series: