Fifty-One Years Ago Today: The Apollo 1 Fire

It was 1967, the race to the moon was in full swing.  Project Gemini with record breaking altitude and endurance feats, orbital missions as long as two weeks and altitudes as high as 873 miles.  They had managed to have one spacecraft rendezvous and dock with another.

Next up was Apollo.  A larger spacecraft holding three rather than two men intended to carry its crew to the moon.

The chosen commander for the first Apollo mission was veteran astronaut Virgil “Gus Grissom” who had flown in the second Mercury mission and commanded the first Gemini mission.  With him were other veteran Edward White, first American to “walk” in space, and newcomer Roger Chaffee.

During early preparation the crew expressed concern about the amount of flammables in the cabin.  Joseph Shea, the program office manager gave the order to remove flammables but did not supervise the removal personally.  In addition more than 700 changes were made to the spacecraft after its arrival at KFC.  Eventually, this work was completed and the craft was given an altitude chamber test with the backup crew (actually a new backup crew after a shakeup in planned operations:  Walter Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham) who pronounced themselves satisfied with the spacecraft and its performance

Ground tests were being conducted during preparation for the planned flight.  On January 27, 1967 the three astronauts were in the capsule for “plugs out” test, where the spacecraft, now sitting atop its Saturn IB launch vehicle, would be checked out on internal power disconnected from the ground umbilicals.

Early in the test, Grissom complained of an odor of sour buttermilk in his suit.  No casue was ever determined for this odor nor was any connection between it and the eventual fire.  During the countdown, the crew experienced communications problems and the countdown was held while those were sorted out.

At just before 6:31 AM the voltage in AC Bus 2 increased momentarily.  Nine seconds later one of the astronauts, some listeners think Grissom, said “Hey!” or “Fire!”  Two more seconds of scuffling then someone (most listeners think Chaffee) said “We’ve (or I’ve) got a fire in the cockpit.”  A few more seconds then another shout of their being a bad fire and they were getting out which ended in a cry of pain.

The fire would have burned all the more fiercely because of the pure oxygen atmosphere of the Apollo spacecraft.

It took five minutes for pad workers to open the hatches to get to the interior of the spacecraft.  By that time it was far too late.  So thick was the smoke that they could not see the astronauts even though the pane lights still shone.  When the smoke cleared, they found the bodies.

In Capsule Twelve, three men were dead.

Grissom had removed his restraints and was lying on the floor of the spacecraft.  White’s restraints were burned through and he had tried to open the hatch.  Chaffee remained strapped into his seat.

Large strands of melted nylon “welded” the astronauts into place.  It took 90 minutes to remove their bodies.

An entire string of factors led to this tragic accident.

  • An ignition source most probably related to “vulnerable wiring carrying spacecraft power” and “vulnerable plumbing carrying a combustible and corrosive coolant”
  • pure oxygen atmosphere at higher than atmospheric pressure
  • cabin sealed with a hatch cover which could not be quickly removed at high pressure
  • An extensive distribution of combustible materials in the cabin
  • Inadequate emergency preparedness (rescue or medical assistance, and crew escape)

Normally, I try to end these with something pithy or clever, but I don’t really have anything for this one except to wish godspeed and fair seas to fallen heroes.  And they were heroes.  They knew they were engaging in a risky endeavor where they faced death.

So, let these two songs express my feelings on the matter:

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One thought on “Fifty-One Years Ago Today: The Apollo 1 Fire”

  1. Jerry Pournelle mentioned having listened to the recording of the incident.
    He did not recommend it to anyone whose priorities included sleeping at night.

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