“We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.”
It was the afternoon of January 27, 1967, a few weeks before the launch of the fledgling Apollo program’s first manned lunar mission. Minutes before, three of America’s first astronauts crawled into the AS-204 Command/Service Module for what was considered a safe simulation of their upcoming flight to the moon. Pressure-suited, strapped into their seats, and hooked up to the vehicle’s oxygen and communication systems, the men—veteran aviators Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee—were making another run through their lift-off checklist when the capsule burst into flames.
The blaze quickly spread through the cabin, lasting only 25-and-a-half seconds and reaching more than 1,000 degrees in some places before devouring the module’s pure oxygen atmosphere. All three astronauts died from asphyxiation.
Jay Honeycutt, then 29, had joined the Apollo program as a flight operations engineer at Houston’s Johnson Space Center the year before. He had just gotten home from his shift at mission control when the news broke. “The test was pretty routine,” says Honeycutt, who served as director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in the mid-1990s and is now retired. “The people in the control center [in Houston] were monitoring the test and talking with the crew and the folks down here [in Florida] were supporting the test as they always did. And all of a sudden, it happened and there wasn’t time to do much of anything.”
NASA quickly appointed a review board to determine the cause. The investigation revealed multiple problems with design, engineering and quality control, and determined that the fire was most likely sparked by an electrical arc near the floor. The heightened internal pressure of the cabin sealed the plug door hatch, blocking the astronauts’ escape and thwarting the efforts of launch pad workers who struggled for five minutes to open it.
The findings struck a blow to NASA and the race to put a man on the moon. A U.S. Senate report released a year later cited “a false sense of confidence and therefore complacency in this operation.…It appears that everyone associated with the design and test of the spacecraft simply failed to understand fully the danger and the cooperative effect of an ignition source, the combustible materials, and the pure oxygen atmosphere in the sealed spacecraft cabin.”
The tragedy led NASA engineers to redesign the spacecraft used for future Apollo missions. They removed combustible materials, and installed quick-opening hatches, a fire extinguishing system, and an emergency oxygen supply system in case the astronauts became separated from their suits. The agency instituted improved training for emergency personnel. During the 20-month suspension of the Apollo program, Honeycutt, his colleagues and the Apollo 7 crew (Apollo 2 and 3 were scrubbed and 4-6 were unmanned missions) ran simulations in a safer, redesigned craft. The AS-204 mission was renamed Apollo 1. On October 7, 1968, the race to the Moon began anew, as Apollo 7 orbited the Earth, testing the revamped craft, the first of four missions that would lay the groundwork for the Apollo 11’s historic moon landing in July 1969.
“We lost some amount of momentum, but we were able to make it up and still get to the moon and back in a decade,” says Honeycutt in reference to President Kennedy’s famous moonshot speech. “In my opinion, the fire got us refocused and it gave us information that we needed that corrected our design. Without the fire, we probably would have had some other thing that would have caused some kind of trouble downstream. If it hadn’t been then, it would have probably been later.”
Fifty years have passed, but the impact on the astronauts’ families lingers.
Apollo 1 was supposed to be Roger Chaffee’s first spaceflight. The 31-year-old naval aviator and test pilot had replaced Donn Eisele as pilot after Eisele dislocated his shoulder during weightlessness training. Sheryl Chaffee was only eight years old when her father died. She remembers him as “very energetic,” a bit cocky, and fun. “I don’t think I knew what a big deal [my dad’s work] was,” says Chaffee, who recently retired from a 33-year administrative career with NASA. “Our neighbors were astronauts, and so I would listen in when they would go up into space. He was, to me, just like any other dad. He was just gone a lot because he was always in training.”
Unlike Chaffee, senior pilot Edward White, 36, had flown once before, for Gemini 4 in 1965, and become the first American to spacewalk. Considered by NASA to be the most physically fit astronaut in the flight corps, White began each day with a run and bicycled the three miles from his house to the Manned Space Center in Houston.
The third Apollo 1 astronaut, 40-year-old command pilot Gus Grissom was a veteran of the Mercury and Gemini missions and the second American to fly in space. His flight on Gemini III earned him the distinction as the first man to fly in space twice. Lowell Grissom, now 82, distinctly remembers his big brother Gus telling the family “there were a lot of things wrong with that spacecraft. He knew that the quality was just not there, that there was so much wiring in the thing. There was like 30 miles of wiring in it. The communication system was bad. He had said at one point that afternoon, ‘How do you expect to hear me from the moon when you can’t hear me from three buildings away?’”
Grissom, for one, welcomes the new exhibit dedicated to the fallen Apollo 1 crew debuting this week at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center Complex, joining a tribute to the astronauts who perished in the Challenger and Columbia explosions. “It’s about damn time,” said Grissom when he heard the news.
The display will include a mix of personal and NASA memorabilia, including photographs, recorded interviews with the Apollo 1 astronauts, and graphics showing their accomplishments. But one artifact will be absent. At the insistence of some family members, the burned command module will remain in storage in a climate-controlled facility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia
“I wanted to be just like them,” says Col. Eileen Collins of the Apollo 1 astronauts. Collins served as the first female commander of a U.S. spacecraft, STS-93 aboard Columbia, in 1999. She’s also the chair of the Astronaut Memorial Foundation, which was involved with the exhibit. “That’s part of our goal with this memorial: to bring that feeling to more people.”
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Nancy Henderson has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications. Her most recent book, Sewing Hope, profiles a Ugandan nun who harbors the former abductees of terrorist Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.