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.
The three astronauts died of asphyxiation. Their deaths were relatively quick and painless, their suits protecting them from the intense heat of the fire. But there were questions that should have been asked before that tragic day that now demanded answers.
A NASA review board found a stray spark (probably from damaged wires near Grissom’s couch) started the fire in the pure oxygen environment. Fed by flammable features such as nylon netting and foam pads, the blaze quickly spread. [Infographic: How the Apollo 1 Fire Happened]
Further, the hatch door – intended to keep the astronauts and the atmosphere securely inside the spacecraft – turned out to be too tough to open under the unfortunate circumstances.
The board listed a damning set of circumstances, failures and recommendations for future spacecraft designers to consider.
This was a management failure from top to bottom. A US Senate investigation excoriated the agency, saying NASA’s failure to report its problems with Apollo “was an unquestionably serious dereliction.”
It was — echoing the 9/11 Commission — a “failure of imagination.”
But despite this, Grissom, Chaffee, and White did not die in vain. Although coming within a hair’s breadth of having the moon program cancelled, the accident appeared to breathe a new spirit into the entire program:
Chagrined, NASA and the companies building the Apollo spacecraft got to work. The flammable oxygen environment for ground tests was replaced with a nitrogen-oxygen mix. Flammable items were removed. A new respect developed between the astronauts and the contractors concerning design changes, which were implemented more effectively. Most notably, the door was completely redesigned so that it would open in mere seconds when the crew needed to get out in a hurry.
And when Apollo 13 got into severe trouble on its way to the moon, it is generally accepted that the knowledge and expertise gained from the Apollo 1 tragedy, helped the agency bring those men home safely.
NASA has fallen on hard times. But it’s not only budget cuts that ails the space agency. We all have forgotten the spirit that animated Grissom, White, and Chaffee — a spirit that allowed them to face the many challenges associated with space flight with courage and good cheer.
Why were their dreams so big and ours so small? Perhaps the answer to that question says a lot about the America we’ve become versus the America we were.