On This Day

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Roger B. Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom practice for the mission in the Apollo Mission Simulator, January 1967.

On This Day: Fire Kills Apollo 1 Crew

January 27, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Jan. 27, 1967, the Apollo capsule caught fire during a test, killing crew members Virgil Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee.

“Fire in the Cockpit!”

The Apollo 1 mission, which was then known as the Apollo/Saturn 204 mission, was intended to be the first manned flight in Earth orbit. Instead, the mission ended in tragedy before it could even get off the ground.

Crew members Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee were scheduled to take off on Feb. 21, 1967 for “an ‘open-end’ mission that marked a bold departure from the rigidly limited space flights of the past,” according to Time.

“If things went well,” continued Time, “Apollo 204 would lead to two other manned flights later this year, and then, possibly as early as 1968, to fulfillment of man's ancient vision of a landing on the moon.”

The crew began a launch simulation on the afternoon of Jan. 27, 1967. At about 6:30 p.m., Grissom shifted in his seat. “His seat moved the bare wire,” writes MSNBC. “It sparked. Instant fire!”

The astronauts called to ground control, and one cried, “Fire in the cockpit!” Just 17 seconds later, the transmission was cut off. It took ground crew five minutes to open the hatch, which opened toward the highly pressurized inside of the cabin. All three were found badly burned and dead of asphyxiation.

The words of Gus Grissom just a few weeks before were proven to be prophetic: “There will be risks, as there are in any experimental programme, and sooner or later, we're going to run head-on into the law of averages and lose somebody.”

Background: Safety Defects of Apollo 1

There were safety concerns about the command module (CM-012) well before the accident. In 1967, Dr. Frank J. Hendel warned that the pure oxygen atmosphere inside CM-012, “presents a fire hazard which is especially great on the launching pad … no fire-fighting methods have yet been developed that can cope with a fire in pure oxygen.”

NASA launched an investigation into the accident, which found that there were many safety hazards because of poor design—most notably, the pure-oxygen atmosphere and the hatch design—and neglectful assembly.

NASA learned from the mistakes made on Apollo 1 and made drastic changes in the way spacecrafts were designed and built. Apollo 1’s sad end is often credited with spurring safety advancements that helped Apollo 11 reach the moon and Apollo 13 return home safely.

According to Jay Barbree of NBC News, “there were no astronauts lost during the Apollo moon landings because of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee's sacrifice.”

Opinion: “Consequences of Complacency and Carelessness”

James Oberg of NBC News believes that the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents should not be treated as inevitable tragedies because that distracts from the fact that they could have been averted.

“If we congratulate ourselves for ‘how much the sacrifices taught us,’ we are ducking a fearsome responsibility,” says Oberg, “We should have known already, and people should not have had to die to remind us. The later disasters were not ‘accidents,’ random and unavoidable—they were consequences of complacency and carelessness.”

Key Players: Grissom, White and Chaffee

NASA provides biographies of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee.

Reference: “Apollo 1” Documentary


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