In the fervor of the Space Race, the AS-204 spacecraft – which would become known as Apollo 1 – sits ready for testing. It’s just over three weeks until launch day, and NASA plans to rehearse that moment here at Cape Canaveral, Florida. However, the three pilots on board are suddenly confronted with a situation that they never expected – and it leaves them helpless.
Those three men – commander Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee – are all highly experienced pilots. Every man apart from Chaffee had already visited space, and soon the trio plan to take off as part of the first mission in the Apollo program to carry astronauts. The module that they would hopefully leave Earth in is known as Block I – a different design from Block II, which would later go to the Moon.
Yes, this earlier module was not intended for a lunar trip. Instead, its rocket would take the craft into a low orbit of the Earth. And this would be an essential step in the Apollo program: the U.S.’s mission to put a man on the Moon. The name Apollo was selected by its head, Abe Silverstein, who believed that the myth of a god riding through the skies in his chariot was only fitting for the size and scope of the initiative.
The Apollo program was the third effort by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – to give NASA its full title – to put men in space. And its primary aim was to fulfill the lofty target set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, when he told Congress that the U.S. would “[land] a man on the Moon by the end of this decade and [return] him safely to the Earth.”
Yes, the aim of the Apollo missions was to send a cone carrying three men up into orbit around the Moon and then bring them safely back to splash down in an ocean here on Earth. The command module was just over 11 feet tall and slightly less than 13 feet across. It came along with its own support module, too, that carried scientific instruments and an engine as well as other packages.
And the task of building the joint command and support module – as well as part of the Saturn V rocket that would lift it – fell to North American Aviation. You see, because of the way that the module had been designed, its own rocket was actually sufficiently powerful to raise the craft from the Moon’s surface. But this version would only be used for testing, with a later model featuring a separate lunar module.
And the men who would step onboard Apollo 1 were highly trained pilots. The crew’s commander, Grissom, had been involved in NASA’s space missions since day one, becoming the second ever American in space and the first person belonging to the NASA Astronaut Corps to go there twice. In fact, the World War II veteran had been selected as one of the “Mercury Seven.”
These seven specialists were the first who had been chosen to be astronauts in Project Mercury, and they were also known as Astronaut Group 1. Alongside Grissom was Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and other men who would all head for the stars when their time came. One of the seven would pilot each of the manned Mercury missions, and the group would subsequently be used for Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle missions.
So when the time came to choose who would be an astronaut, it had already been decided that test pilots who had served in the American military would be the best group to source from. And on top of this restriction, any potential astronaut had to be incredibly fit, well-educated and, curiously, no taller than 5 foot 11 inches. That’s because a taller man could not fit inside the spacecraft.
Selecting astronauts was a tough process, beginning with whittling test pilots down to the 110 who met the criteria. Months of testing – both physical and mental – then followed, with some tests apparently being particularly severe. For instance, potential astronauts had to endure having their feet frozen in icy water as well as suffer through no fewer than five enemas. But the process winnowed out the best of a group of high achievers – with a number of those rejected going on to become admirals.
However, two-thirds of the pilots selected for Apollo 1 had not been in the Mercury Seven. The first was White, who had a career as a test pilot and an aeronautical engineer behind him. He was an experienced astronaut, too, having been the first person on a U.S. mission to step outside their spacecraft and spacewalk in 1965.
In fact, White had also piloted the ship in question – Gemini 4 – on its June 1965 trip into orbit, and it was on this flight that he’d made his record-setting exit into space. The astronaut had loved walking in space so much, in fact, that he apparently actually had to be commanded to go back inside. But danger had not been far away: a problem with a hatch could have been life-threatening had his partner not been able to shut it again.
Conversely, the third member of the team, Chaffee, was the least experienced of the group, as he’d never been to space before. He had been one of nearly 2,000 applicants who had sought to be part of the third astronaut group. But the aspiring astronaut continued to progress through the selection stages – despite his particularly diminutive (yet very effective) lungs – and he was delighted to be officially selected for the mission in October 1963.
After Chaffee found out that he had been chosen, he spent some time working on the Gemini 3 and Gemini 4 projects before being placed as third seat in the Apollo 1 mission. Happily, this seemed like a dream come true for the aspiring astronaut, as he reportedly once said, “I’ve always wanted to fly and perform adventurous flying tasks all my life.”
Now Chaffee and the others were scheduled to enter space in AS-204 – as the vessel was coded. The purposes of the preliminary excursion were to check launch procedures, and once in the sky, to try out the tracking and control for future missions. Depending on the mission’s progress, it could take as long as 14 days. And for the first time, a TV camera would be attached to the craft so that controllers could see its instruments.
Flight crew operations director Deke Slayton – who had himself been one of the Mercury Seven – picked the crew for Apollo 1. Originally, he’d opted for Donn F. Eisele as third seat, but Eisele managed to damage his shoulder in training, so Chaffee substituted for him. At the end of March 1966 the three astronauts were set in stone, and NASA shared it with the public.
Then in June the crew were invited to put together an Apollo 1 mission patch, although it hadn’t been formally decided whether the mission would carry the Apollo name. And the crew themselves were responsible for the patch’s design – centered on themes that were linked to the mission itself – with a North American Aviation worker doing the artwork.
The Apollo 1 module was significantly larger and more complicated than anything that had been built before. And when the crew looked it over, they expressed some concerns about how many items inside the craft could catch fire – particularly Velcro and nylon nets. However, this might have been drowned out by other issues, as engineering alterations bogged the project down.
So NASA continued to test the module, changing its design as appropriate. And as a result of this hard work, the craft edged towards being ready for takeoff. As the builders worked on smoothing down its rough edges, it was decided to make this the only crewed test of the Block I design. Crews shifted around, getting set for the next stage of the program.
Apparently not everyone was satisfied with the craft’s progress, though. One of the backup crew claimed to be “uncomfortable” with the ship, although he couldn’t put his finger on what the problem was. He urged Grissom to bail at the first sniff of a problem, but the mission’s commander would not allow fear to creep in.
Indeed, the chief pilot said in an interview with The New York Times in 1966, “You sort of have to put that out of your mind. There’s always a possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, of course; this can happen on any flight. It can happen on the last one as well as the first one. So, you just plan as best you can to take care of all these eventualities, and you get a well-trained crew and you go fly.”
On January 27, 1967, the spacecraft was going to be tested “plugs out.” This would make sure that the module could operate while set free from external cables. The test would be a crucial step towards Block I being launched on February 21, but it was thought to be straightforward and, crucially, perfectly safe. After all, the spaceship would not be fueled, and its explosive bolts would not be activated.
That fateful afternoon, then, the three pilots climbed into the Block I in their suits. Other NASA workers tightened up their straps and linked each of the astronauts to air and communication. Yet before the test could begin, Grissom reported a curious smell inside his suit that had to be checked out. However, officials couldn’t determine the scent’s source, and after nearly 90 minutes the countdown resumed once more.
The next stage was to install the hatch that was comprised of three pieces. The inner hatch sat in the cabin, and two outer elements lay outside. The last layer made up part of the cover for the whole module. While the team were setting up for the test, they couldn’t fully close this last hatch because the one cable to which the module was still attached ran underneath it to supply power. Once the third hatch was in place, though, the cabin’s air was switched to 100 percent oxygen.
It quickly became apparent that communications were poor, with Grissom complaining, “How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?” This resulted in another delay, as attempts were made to fix Grissom’s microphone that was permanently switched to transmit. In the meantime, the astronauts could be heard moving around in the cockpit, and a possible reason for this soon became apparent.
The pilots once more went through the checklist that guided their actions. As they did so, there was a rise in voltage in one of the AC connections. Almost ten seconds after that, an astronaut, tentatively later identified as Grissom, said an incomprehensible phrase. And among the conceivable words that he had used was one shocking possibility: “Fire!”
Suddenly, the horrified ground crew could hear the sound of the astronauts struggling to escape from the cabin. A voice – thought to be Chaffee’s – confirmed, “[I’ve, or We’ve] got a fire in the cockpit.” Confusion took hold as the men tried to let ground control know that they were contending with a serious blaze.
Some people later said that they had been able to see White on the TV connection trying to open the inner hatch as the blaze took hold. Meanwhile, the cabin oxygen fueled what was now an inferno. The pressure rose rapidly, and the command module’s walls broke open. Then the flames surged out onto the launch pad.
The air rush that occurred after the walls of the cabin were breached pushed flames into the whole cabin. But soon this influx of air also put the fire out, as it replaced the oxygen in the cockpit. Masses of carbon monoxide and thick smoke pervaded the cockpit, and as the fire died down, large quantities of soot started to coat the cooling surfaces.
The pad’s workers fought to get the hatch open, but it took them five minutes. Once inside, they could not immediately find the astronauts because of the heavy smoke. As the air became clearer, though, a horrific scene presented itself. The three astronauts’ bodies were stuck to the cabin, pinned by melted nylon.
When Slayton first looked into the inside of the cabin, he was confronted by a truly terrible picture. He told an inquiry about Grissom and White, “It is very difficult for me to determine the exact relationships of these two bodies. They were sort of jumbled together.” It seemed clear that the three had followed procedure, but it had not been any help to them.
A huge investigation ensued, run under procedures set after Gemini 8 had failed in flight in 1966. Part of the inquiry involved breaking the spacecraft down into its component parts and checking each one. And the investigation board also looked at autopsy reports and speaking to witnesses, eventually reporting their findings in April 1967.
The autopsies on the astronauts discovered that although their bodies were badly burned, this had not caused their demise. Instead, they had all suffered heart attacks as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. This had happened when the fire had melted the tubes that fed them air, letting in the toxic gas.
The review board couldn’t figure out for sure where the fire had begun, though. However, it did find a copper wire coated in silver that had lost some of its insulation: seemingly it had been rubbed off by a door. And this exposed wire lay near a cooling line which had previously sprung leaks. Worringly, the coolant included ethylene glycol, and this chemical could react with the silver on the wire to create an outburst of heat.
Wherever the spark had come from, though, it found the perfect environment for a blaze. As we already know, the cabin had been filled with pure oxygen, creating a pressure in excess of five times more than that of atmospheric oxygen. The flight plan would have been to lessen the level of oxygen once in flight, as this would drop the chances of a blaze breaking out while still leaving enough for the astronauts to breathe.
Moreover, the investigation found that many of the objects in Block I could catch on fire. The cockpit’s floor was covered in Velcro, for instance, which would certainly burn in an all-oxygen environment. And although some of the flammable material had been taken out when the astronauts had questioned it, it had all been put back in before the test.
Above all, when planning the test, those in charge had not seen these fire hazards as risky. Consequently, the equipment for use in an emergency simply wasn’t up to the job of coping with this sort of blaze. For example, there were no firefighters or rescue workers on site, and no medical personnel were situated close by. And to make matters worse, the area was cluttered, making access to the command module difficult.
The Apollo shuttles obviously needed some serious design alterations, now that this tragic event had driven home just how risky they were. No men would fly in Block I spacecraft, and Block II was given a redesign. In particular, the atmosphere in the cabin would contain much less oxygen until the craft had reached space.
Astronauts’ suits were also rejigged. Flammable nylon was replaced by Beta cloth: a material that’s fire resistant and also very hard to melt. And the inside of the cabin featured materials that would not take a flame. The hatch on the craft changed too, now opening outward within five seconds.
In honor of the fallen astronauts, the craft was formally redesignated Apollo 1 – the next, as the fourth in the program, would be Apollo 4. And when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin finally set foot on the Moon, they laid an Apollo 1 mission patch on the satellite in the memory of their fallen comrades. Later, a plaque with Grissom, White and Chaffee’s names – and those of others who had given their lives in the quest to reach the stars – was placed on the Moon.