Forty-Seven years ago, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee shoehorned themselves into the Apollo capsule for a full-on test of their brand new vehicle — a “plugs-out” exercise to see what the vehicle could do when not attached to an external power source.
For months, the 3 men had been trying to work out the kinks in the spacecraft. On January 27, 1967, the astronauts were dealing with design problems, balky systems, and a communications nightmare that led Grissom to exclaim at one point, “How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?” Grissom was disgusted with more than the communications system. He thought the entire spacecraft needed to be redesigned:
On his last visit home in Texas, Jan. 22, 1967, Grissom grabbed a lemon off a citrus tree in the backyard. His wife, Betty, asked what he was going to do with it. “I’m going to hang it on that spacecraft,” he answered as he kissed her goodbye. He did so once he arrived at the Cape.
Grissom’s cynicism proved justified.
NBC’s veteran space anchor Jay Barbree picks up the story of what happened that late afternoon at Launch Complex 34:
Somewhere beneath the seat of Apollo 1 Commander Gus Grissom, an open wire chafed. Insulation was worn and torn. The wire, alive with electrical power, lay bare in a thick soup of 100 percent oxygen — one of the most dangerous and corrosive gases known. Exposed to an ignition source, it is extremely flammable.
It had been used in the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft without trouble. But this much pure oxygen inside a ship as large as Apollo was another story.
Grissom and his Apollo 1 crewmates, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were on the launch pad undergoing a full dress rehearsal countdown when Gus shifted his body for comfort.
His seat moved the bare wire.
The launch team froze before its television monitors. Muscles stiffened, voices ceased in mid-sentence. They didn’t know what they were witnessing. It was something horrifying and unbelievable. Flames rampaging inside Apollo 1 — a whirlwind of fire burning everything it touched.
The medical readings showed Ed White’s pulse rate jumped off the charts — showed the three astronauts burst into instant movement.
The first call from Apollo 1 smashed into the launch team’s headsets.
One word from Ed White.
Then, the unmistakable deep voice of Gus Grissom.
“I’ve got a fire in the cockpit!”
Instantly afterward, Roger Chaffee’s voice.
Then a garbled transmission and then the final plea:
“Get us out!”
Then words known only to God, followed by a scream …
In the blockhouse, the chief of astronauts, Deke Slayton, jumped from his chair, shouting, “What the hell’s happening?”
Eyes stared in horror at the monitors. Flames expanded swiftly, built to a white glare before subsiding, and Deke thought he saw a shadow moving inside. He couldn’t be sure, and then he saw bright orange flames flickering about Apollo 1′s hatch.
Hellish flames followed by thick smoke.
An icy chill moved over his skin. Those calls of fire, that final garbled scream — they had come from inside Apollo 1.
Pad crews were rushing to the scene, trying to get to Gus, Ed and Roger. Astronaut Stuart Roosa, on console in the blockhouse, was trying frantically to talk with them. Again and again he called, desperate, his face chalk white.