On this day in 1967, during a pre-flight test for what was to be the first manned Apollo mission, a flash fire savagely claimed the lives of three U.S. astronauts; Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. After the disaster, the mission was officially designated Apollo 1. Despite the heroic efforts of those inside and outside the capsule, the three men perished within seconds; it would take more than 18 months, and extensive redesigns, before NASA sent more men into space.
NASA had set a lofty goal, envisioned by President John F. 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 had been the first steps toward that goal, testing how humans behaved in space and how to manage technical spacecraft procedures such as rendezvous and spacewalks (EVAs). The early Apollo missions would take astronauts all the way to the moon for orbital missions, leading toward the eventual landing; the first manned mission, an Earth-orbiting flight, was originally designated Apollo Saturn-204, and set for February 21.
The Apollo 1 crew commander, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, was an Air Force veteran of the Korean War. He was among NASA’s first group of seven astronauts, the Mercury Seven. Grissom was America’s second man in space in 1961, and on that mission, Mercury’s Liberty Bell 7, the hatch door blew for unknown reasons upon splashdown. Despite that controversy, Grissom successfully commanded the first Gemini flight, Gemini 3, and was selected to do the same for Apollo.
Fellow spaceflight veteran Ed White, an Air Force lieutenant colonel and University of Michigan alumnus, was the first American to make a spacewalk on Gemini 4 in 1965. The images of him soaring in space for 23 minutes are still frequently seen to this day, and depict what is considered a high-point in American history.
Roger Chaffee was a seasoned Navy lieutenant commander who joined the program in 1963. Although a rookie in space, he had spent years supporting the Gemini program, most publicly as CapCom on Gemini 4. Now getting a chance to fly after five years in the program, he remarked, “I think it will be a lot of fun.”
On the fateful day, preliminary glitches had already slowed the mission clock. The crew suited up and detected a foul odor in the breathing oxygen, which took about an hour to fix. Then the communications system acted up; shouting through the noise, Grissom vented: “How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?” The crew members were using the time to run through their checklist again, when a momentary increase in AC Bus 2 voltage occurred. Nine seconds later, laboratory analysis indicates Grissom exclaimed “Hey! Fire!” or “Flame!”
The rapid intensity of the blaze fed by pure oxygen caused the pressure in the capsule to rise to 29 psi, which ruptured the command module’s inner wall; Astronaut Deke Slayton, who oversaw crew selections at NASA and was present for the test, could see white flames in a closed-circuit television monitor pointing toward the spacecraft as the crew struggled to get out. Technicians raced to the scene, trying to fight the fire with extinguishers amid faulty breathing masks, and it took a full five minutes for ground crew to open the three-layer hatch; it was far too late.
A NASA review board found a stray spark (probably from damaged wires near Grissom’s couch) started the fire in the pure oxygen environment. Fed by flammable features such as nylon netting and foam pads, the blaze quickly spread. The board listed a damning set of circumstances, failures and recommendations for future spacecraft designers to consider, and the U.S. Senate conducted its own inquiry.
30 months after the tragedy, with multiple improvements powering the mission, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed safely on the face of the moon at tranquility base; now decades later, NASA recalls the Apollo 1 incident every January in an annual Day of Remembrance, also honoring the Challenger and Columbia crews, who perished in 1986 and 2003, respectively.
And here, the story of remarkable bravery and perseverance endeth.