Boomers Witnessed Apollo 1’s Fateful Mission

January 31 is designated as an Annual Day of Remembrance for the brave men and women who lost their lives in the pursuit of space exploration and discovery. This year marks a fateful anniversary in that regard, as fifty years ago this week three astronauts lost their lives in a preflight fire aboard Apollo 1 (NASA titled AS-204).

Scheduled to launch on February 21, 1967, Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee were to be the first crewed flight of the Apollo missions that would eventually take us to the moon.

This was to be Roger Chaffee’s first space flight. The other two, however, were veterans of the Space Program. Virgil “Gus” Grissom reached space in July 1961 aboard the Liberty Bell 7 capsule in the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission. After a 15 and half-minute suborbital flight, his space capsule sank in the ocean on reentry. Grissom was quickly retrieved by the US Navy. Edward White became the first American to perform a spacewalk in June 1965. He was one of two astronauts aboard Gemini 4. Pilot James McDivitt and White spent four days in space, on only the tenth manned spaceflight launched by the US.

On January 27, 1967, the Apollo astronauts suited up for a planned preflight test of systems in the Command Module, which was in place on top of the Saturn rocket (AS-204) at the launch site. At around 6:31 p.m. EST, the crew reported a fire inside their module. From the subsequent investigation and report to Congress, we know that a voltage surge was recorded around one minute before the fire was reported. The fire began beneath the Senior Pilot’s couch and spread through channels that were designed to deflect debris away from the astronauts during flight. It quickly surged through the Command Module, which contained 100 percent oxygen, consuming flammable materials and wiring and filling it with smoke. Pressure built inside the module with the heat from the fire, making it exceedingly difficult to open the inside of the two-layer hatch since it opened inward. The crew on the platform outside could not see the astronauts through the viewing window due to the smoke, and were not able to approach the capsule in time due to the heat. All indications pointed to the Apollo crew and platform personnel following procedures, but in less than twenty minutes, the crew was officially reported dead.

As a result, NASA grounded all flights while an investigation was conducted. It was to be nearly a year before the next launch, which was a severe setback in the middle of the Space Race. President Kennedy’s goal of getting a crew to the moon and back within the decade seemingly became an impossible mission.

In our day and age, it seems unbelievable that there wasn’t a system in place to handle such contingencies as an onboard fire before the spacecraft was launched. However, we need to remind ourselves that putting people into space was a completely new thing, and virtually every aspect had to be developed as the Space Program progressed. As a result of the investigation, NASA initiated major design and engineering changes before the first Apollo flight was launched. Among these changes were:

• An outward-opening hatch
• Mix of oxygen and nitrogen in the module
• Fireproof storage containers
• Protective covering over wiring and flameproof coating on wire connections
• Plastic switches were replaced with metal
• Emergency oxygen system to isolate crew from cabin emergencies
• Fire extinguishers onboard and on the launch platform

The deaths of Grissom, White and Chaffee hit the country — and boomers — hard. For boomers like Mister B who followed the Space Program through every mission, it was a devastating blow, like a member of the family had passed away. Mister Boomer recalls seeing pictures of the damaged module in Life magazine, along with photos of a subsequent zipline escape system installed on the launch towers. Though it was a severe setback for the Space Program, after NASA presented their findings and intentions for modifications to Congress in April of 1967, there weren’t many people ready to give up on achieving President Kennedy’s challenge that he made only six years earlier.

Do you recall hearing the awful news of the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts from the first TV and radio reports, boomers?