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.
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: