The Apollo 1 Fire

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)

On  January 27, 1967, three men lost their lives in NASA's first disaster. It occurred on the ground as 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), were practicing for the first Apollo mission. At the time, since it was a ground test, the mission was called Apollo/Saturn 204. Ultimately, it would be called Apollo 1 and it was going to be an Earth-orbiting trip. Lift-off was scheduled for February 21, 1967, and would be the first of a series of trips to train astronauts for the moon landing slated for the late 1960s. 

Mission Practice Day

On January 27th, 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. The rocket was unfueled but everything else was as close to reality as the team could make it. That day's work was to be an entire countdown sequence from the moment the astronauts entered the capsule until the time that launch would have occurred. It seemed very straightforward, no risk to the astronauts, who were suited up and ready to go. 

A Few Seconds 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. 

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

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 ignited and spread flames throughout the capsule. 

Apollo 1 Aftermath

The disaster put a hold on the entire Apollo program. Investigators needed to probe the wreckage and figure out the causes of the fire. Although a specific point of ignition for the fire could not be determined, the investigation board's final report blamed the fire on electrical arcing among the wires hanging open in the cabin, which was filled with materials that burned easily. In the oxygen-enriched atmosphere, all it took was one spark to set off a fire. The astronauts couldn't escape through the locked hatches in time. 

The lessons of the Apollo 1 fire were tough ones. NASA replaced cabin components with self-extinguishing materials. Pure oxygen (which is always a danger) was replaced by a nitrogen-oxygen mixture at launch. Finally, engineers re-designed the hatch to open outward and made it so that it could be removed quickly in the event of a problem.

Honoring those Who Lost their Lives

The 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).  

Grissom and Chaffee were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, and Ed White is buried at West Point at the US Military Academy where he studied. All three men are honored throughout the country, with their names on schools, military, and civilian museums and other structures. 

Reminders of Danger

The Apollo 1 fire was a stark reminder that space exploration is not an easy thing to do. Grissom himself once said that exploration was a risky business. "If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life." 

To minimize risks, astronauts and ground crews practice relentlessly, planning for almost any eventuality. as flight crews have done for decades. Apollo 1 wasn't the first time NASA had lost astronauts. In 1966, astronauts Elliott See and Charles Bassett were killed in a crash of their NASA jet crashed on a routine flight to St. Louis. In addition, the Soviet Union had lost cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov at the end of a mission earlier in 1967. But, the Apollo 1 catastrophe reminded everyone again of the risks of flight. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.