The Tragic Fire on Apollo 1

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Before these historical words were uttered, many sacrifices had to be made both in terms of money and in human life. When you’re a government funded agency who depends on support from taxpayers to stay afloat, having a tragic mission that results in loss of human life is bad news. Really bad news – especially when it’s the very first mission in a new and expensive space program. What makes the Apollo 1 tragedy so significant was how NASA responded to the disaster, and how it revolutionised the entire Apollo program. 

Before the careful moon landing of Apollo 11 and the close call aboard Apollo 13, there was the failed attempt of Apollo 1, which never managed to take off due to a fire that broke out in the capsule on the launch rehearsal day. The flames suffocated and killed all three crew members. It was a huge setback but one that was sorely needed to motivate the scientists and engineers behind the Apollo program. 

After Kennedy announced that the United States would land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth on the 25th of May 1961, NASA had to get off its laurels and make some serious progress in just a few years. By ‘66, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had planned out an initial test rocket for low Earth orbit practice flights. It was a shorter, stubbier version of the future Saturn V, and was not designed to push a spacecraft into translunar injection, only into orbit around the Earth. Initially it was designated AS-204, and NASA quickly started training a group of astronauts on how to fly the rocket. They announced the first ever mission of the program, Apollo 1, which would see the AS-204 climb into orbit and eject the first Apollo Command Module into free fall around planet Earth. Onboard it would carry television equipment and high quality cameras to capture the event live. 

Since the end of the Mercury and Gemini projects, NASA had made some major leaps and were prepared to deploy a spacecraft far larger and more complex than anything they had attempted before. It would launch on a rocket with significantly more thrust than those of the late fifties and early sixties, and would prepare the agency for long haul flights into outer space. The Apollo Program needed to confirm that several astronauts could feasibly be transported into space in a large, advanced craft and survive a full mission. If America was to land a man on the Moon, they needed something to work from. By flying the carefully engineered Command and Service modules in space for real, they would get all the data and confirmation needed. Effectively the mission would be a proof of concept. 

Apollo 1 was formally announced in 1966 and planned for the next year. Alongside a myriad of technical measurement reading equipment and control panels, the modules would be fitted with an advanced video camera so images of the flight could be broadcast to the public down on terra firma. It was an ambition that had never been attempted before and undeniably one of a kind – unconventional in every conceivable way. 

Thanks to the complexity of a module based spacecraft assembly and the massive rocket needed to heave it into orbit around Earth, there were a plethora of things that could go wrong during the mission. Many of the Apollo engineers were sceptical that the rocket would even make it off the ground. They had certainly seen many catastrophic explosions during the first launches in the fifties. 

Following tradition, a unique mission patch was designed for Apollo 1. Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom, the chief member of the crew who unfortunately died in the fire, did not get approval for his initial design of the spacecraft insignia. After he proposed his, it was changed and made more suitable by Allen Stevens, an artist employed by North American Aviation. 

Apollo 1’s command and service modules were far more technical and complicated than any other design created prior to the mission. When it was proposed to the board of review, many questioned its safety and thought it to be extremely risky. Some engineers criticised that the design included too many novelty features rather than practical measures. 

Gus Grissom himself commented:

“An awful lot of people have devoted more effort than I can describe to [make] Project Mercury and its successors as safe as humanly possible … But we also recognize that there remains a great deal of risk, especially in initial operations, regardless of planning. You just can’t forecast all the things that could happen, or when they could happen.”

There were a lot of issues with regard to the modules that were flagged during inspections. For example, the excessive use of nylon and velcro webbing on the inside of the craft was picked out as a risk but the engineers ignored the warnings. More red flags appeared as the safety teams inspected the oxygen tank configurations and potential ignition sources. Though these warnings were brushed away, it would later transpire that they’d be fatal to Apollo 1 before it even left the ground. 

On January 27, 1967 the eventful day arrived. It was a launch rehearsal test in anticipation of Apollo 1 flying later the same year. If a launch on the 21st of February was to be achieved, a flight rehearsal was absolutely crucial. 

Apollo 1’s flight rehearsal was considered safe and sound since all fuel and explosive material had been removed from the launch vehicle. It was a rehearsal flight and never supposed to take off. However, shortly after Mission Control called main ignition, a fire was reported first by Commander Grissom and then by his comrade Chaffee in a panicked communication. Unsure how to respond, Mission Control wasted precious moments attempting to look into the issue. After mere seconds of muffled radio transmission, the line was abruptly broken by a cry of pain, as the fire had become too hot and was spreading rapidly in Apollo 1’s oxygen rich module.

Emergency alerts were broadcast all across Mission Control as engineers and safety teams rushed to the rehearsal assembly. When the fire was extinguished and the cockpit cranked open, the workers were scarred by the gory image of the astronauts’ toasted bodies. The remains could not be immediately removed because the fire had literally melted their nylon suits into the seats. The astronauts had been so terribly burned that the body removal took more than an hour of agonising work. The sight was simply horrific. 

As soon as the wreckage had been cleared up, an investigation into the incident was called. In communications to Lyndon B. Johnson, NASA persuaded the president not to speculate about the causes of the disaster. The news had to be cautiously broken to the public to avoid controversy and outrage. Lyndon B. Johnson’s demands for an investigation led to the formation of the Apollo 204 Review Board, which led the project. 

The board found a few major causes for the disaster, but the primary perpetrators pointed to an extreme lack of caution and responsibility. Weak and frayed wiring in the command module had provided the source of ignition. The flame was quickly carried by the oxygen rich environment of the capsule, which contained twice as much oxygen as normal. Poor control of the oxygen pumps and a sudden ignition allowed the fire to spread extremely rapidly and fill the module with suffocating, toxic gasses. This was only exacerbated by the fumes let off from the burning nylon and plastic. With the increased pressure and heat inside the craft, the astronauts barely had seconds to live before they were sadly burned to a crisp. 

Apollo 1 was a tragedy that shook the United States and indeed the entire world, but it was crucial in educating NASA on how to maintain safety standards and investigate potential risks. The fire in Apollo 1 motivated NASA’s engineers and scientists to never make the same mistake again. With the forgiveness of the US Government and taxpayers, NASA managed to launch a test flight of their Saturn IB rocket into space July that year – this time without a crew. 

Had it not been for the lessons learned from Apollo 1, there may have been many more even sadder catastrophes. In fact, NASA was so close to losing all of its support and cancelling the Apollo program as a result of the disaster that the engineers thanked their lucky stars that the fire hadn’t happened during a real launch, otherwise they surely would have been done for. Unfortunately, Apollo 1 was still an enormous tragedy and the astronauts in the capsule – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – were mourned by millions. All three were extremely capable astronauts who NASA could not replace and they all had families who were absolutely destroyed by the news. 

The changes made following Apollo 1 haven’t stopped space travel from being extremely dangerous, and weren’t able to prevent the failures on Apollo 13, Challenger or Columbia, but they have prevented many other disasters that could have occurred in the following decades. Without Apollo 1, many more good human lives might have been lost. 

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