The Apollo 1 Fire

America's First Space Tragedy

Apollo 1 Mission and Fire Pictures - Apollo 1 Fire
Apollo 1 Mission and Fire Pictures - Apollo 1 Fire. NASA Headquarters - GReatest Images of NASA (NASA-HQ-GRIN)

Space exploration may look easy when those rockets thunder off the launch pad, but all that power comes with a price. Long before the launches are the practice sessions and astronaut training. While launches always pose a certain amount of risk, the ground training also comes with a certain amount of risk. Accidents happen, and in the case of NASA, the U.S. faced tragedy early on in the race for the Moon.

While astronauts and pilots have long risked their lives during flight training, the first astronaut loss in a training accident shook the nation to its core. The loss of Apollo 1 and its three-person crew on January 27, 1967, was a stark reminder of the dangers that astronauts face as they learn how to work in space. 

The Apollo 1 tragedy occurred as the crew of Apollo/Saturn 204 (which was its designation during ground testing) was practicing for the first Apollo flight that would carry them to space. Apollo 1 was slated as an Earth-orbiting mission and its lift-off date was scheduled for February 21, 1967. The astronauts were going through a procedure called a "plugs-out" test. Their Command Module was mounted on the Saturn 1B rocket on the launch pad just as it would have been during the actual launch. However, there was no need to fuel the rocket. The test was a simulation taking the crew through an entire countdown sequence from the moment they entered the capsule until the time that launch would have occurred.

It seemed very straightforward, no risk to the astronauts. They were suited up and ready to go. 

Practicing in the capsule was the actual crew scheduled to be launched in February. Inside were  Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom (the second American astronaut to fly into space), Edward H. White II, (the first American astronaut to "walk" in space) and Roger B.

Chaffee, (a "rookie" astronaut on his first space mission). They were highly trained men eager to complete this next stage of their training for the project.

Timeline of Tragedy

Right after lunch, the crew entered the capsule to start the test. There were small problems from the beginning and finally, a communications failure caused a hold to be placed on the count at 5:40 p.m.

At 6:31 p.m. a voice (possibly Roger Chaffee's) exclaimed, "Fire, I smell fire." Two seconds later, Ed White's voice came over the circuit, "Fire in the cockpit." The final voice transmission was very garbled. "They’re fighting a bad fire—let’s get out. Open ‘er up" or, "We’ve got a bad fire—let’s get out. We’re burning up" or, "I’m reporting a bad fire. I’m getting out."The transmission ended with a cry of pain. In the space of a few seconds, the astronauts were doomed. 

The flames spread quickly through the cabin. That last transmission ended 17 seconds after the start of the fire. All telemetry information was lost shortly after that. Emergency responders were dispatched quickly to help.

A Cascade of Problems

Attempts to get at the astronauts were stymied by a host of problems. First, the capsule hatch was closed with clamps that required extensive ratcheting to release.

Under the best of circumstances, it could take at least 90 seconds to open them. Since the hatch opened inward, pressure had to be vented before it could be opened. It was nearly five minutes after the start of the fire before rescuers could get into the cabin. By this time, the oxygen-rich atmosphere, which had seeped into the materials of the cabin, had caused the fire to spread rapidly.

The crew most likely perished within the first 30 seconds of smoke inhalation or burns. Resuscitation efforts were futile.

Apollo 1 Aftermath

A hold was placed on the entire Apollo program while investigators probed the causes of the accident. Although a specific point of ignition for the fire could not be determined, the final report of the investigation board blamed the fire on electrical arcing among the wires hanging open in the cabin.

It was further exacerbated by a lot of flammable materials in the capsule and the oxygen-enriched atmosphere. In other words, it was a recipe for a fast-moving fire from which the astronauts could not escape.

For future missions, most cabin materials were replaced with self-extinguishing materials. Pure oxygen was replaced by a nitrogen-oxygen mixture at launch. Finally, the hatch was redesigned to open outward and could be removed quickly.

The follow-up Apollo/Saturn 204 mission was officially assigned the name "Apollo 1" in honor of Grissom, White, and Chaffee. The first Saturn V launch (uncrewed) in November 1967 was designated Apollo 4 (no missions were ever designated Apollo 2 or 3).

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.