In a barren area of Cape Canaveral stands a gaunt, concrete and steel hulk which once formed the launch platform of Pad 34. Today, overgrown by bushes, weeds and a handful of wild pepper trees, it steadily decays in the salty Atlantic air. A faded ‘Abandon In Place’ sign adorns one of its legs. Near its base are a pair of plaques, memorialising one of the site’s darkest days of trauma. The first one reads simply ‘Launch Complex 34, Friday 27 January 1967, 1831 Hours’ and dedicates itself to the first three astronauts of Project Apollo: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The second plaque pays tribute to their ‘ultimate sacrifice’ that January evening, long ago. Close by are three granite benches, one in honour of each fallen astronaut.
Every year, NASA invites the families of the men to visit the spot and reflect upon the tragedy which engulfed them with such horrifying suddenness that Friday. To pause at Pad 34 and consider its significance is to consider the astonishing ability of America’s space programme to rebound from this appalling disaster and plant human bootprints on the lunar surface, barely 30 months later. Even today, the steadily maturing effort to build a new heavy-lift booster for exploration beyond Earth orbit and the political rhetoric about asteroids by 2025 and Mars at some indeterminate time thereafter pales in comparison to the incredible strides achieved by Project Apollo. Cast against a backdrop of steadily declining budgets and overshadowed by the brutality of Vietnam, Pad 34 can be seen not only as a place of despair and sorrow…but as a place of destiny and success.
Yet for NASA, its workforce and the astronaut corps, 1967 turned into a truly rotten year and little of note exorcised the spectre of gloom until the monster Saturn V rocket embarked on its maiden voyage in early November. The tragedy which engulfed Apollo eliminated the space agency’s plans to launch as many as three Earth-orbital missions that year. Apollo 1, carrying Grissom, White and Chaffee, would be a ten-to-14-day shakedown of the basic ‘Block 1’ variant of the craft. It would be followed by Apollo 2 (crewed by Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart) to evaluate the lunar module in Earth orbit and finally Apollo 3 (manned by Frank Borman, Mike Collins and Bill Anders) to undertake the first piloted flight of the Saturn V to a record-breaking apogee of more than 6,400 miles. The first two missions would originate atop the Saturn IB booster – nicknamed “the big maumoo” by Grissom and his backup, Wally Schirra – from Pad 34.
Neither Grissom, nor Schirra, harboured confidence in the Block 1 vehicle, which they felt was sloppy and unsafe. In fact, they had spent months overseeing poor performance and low standards on the part of prime contractor North American. Unlike Gemini, where they could approach James McDonnell himself if issues arose, the North American set-up was larger and more impersonal – “a slick, big-time bunch of Washington operators,” astronaut Tom Stafford wrote in his memoir, We Have Capture – and there were worries that technicians were more concerned about their free time than about constructing a safe spacecraft. Even NASA’s Apollo manager Joe Shea remarked that after receiving the initial $2 billion contract, North American threw a party and made hats with ‘NASA’ printed on them…albeit with the ‘S’ replaced by a dollar sign…
By late 1966, hundreds of problems with the Block 1 craft remained unresolved – a faulty water glycol pump in the environmental control system, leaky thrusters, coolant glitches, bad wiring and inadequate software – and Grissom’s crew were so angry that they prepared a mocking photograph of themselves, heads bowed in prayer over the spacecraft. “It’s not that we don’t trust you,” Grissom explained, “but this time we’ve decided to go over your head!” On 22 January 1967, shortly before flying to the Cape for a ‘plugs-out’ launch pad test, Grissom plucked a lemon from a tree in his Houston backyard, flew it to Florida in his baggage and hung it over the Block 1 spacecraft’s hatch.
To be fair, North American had faced their own technical challenges. NASA had mandated that the Apollo command module should operate a pure oxygen atmosphere – an extreme fire hazard, admittedly, but infinitely less complex than trying to implement an oxygen-nitrogen mix, which, if misjudged, could suffocate the men before they even knew about it. In space, the cabin would be kept at a pressure of about a fifth of an atmosphere, but from ground tests would be pressurised to slightly above one atmosphere. This would eliminate the risk of the spacecraft imploding, but at such high pressures there remained the danger that anything which caught fire would burn almost explosively. At an early stage, North American objected to the use of pure oxygen, but NASA, which had employed it without incident on Mercury and Gemini, overruled them.
The choice of pure oxygen had not been made lightly. NASA knew that a two-gas system, providing an Earth-like mixture of 80 percent nitrogen and 20 percent oxygen, pressurised to one bar, would reduce the risk of fire. Moreover, a mixture of this type avoided many other troubles associated with pure oxygen – eye irritation, hearing loss and a clogging of the chest, for example – but the complexities of building such a system threatened to make it prohibitively heavy. The astronauts’ space suits complicated the issue yet further. “To walk on the Moon,” wrote Deke Slayton, “you needed to get out of the spacecraft…and with a mixed-gas system you’d have to pre-breathe for hours, lowering the pressure and getting the nitrogen out of your system so you didn’t get the bends. Of course, if there was a real emergency and you had to use the suit, you’d really have been in trouble.”
Other worries surrounded Apollo’s hatch: a complex device which actually came in two cumbersome pieces – an inner section, which opened into the command module’s cabin, overlaid by an outer section. North American wanted to build a single-piece hatch, fitted with explosive bolts, but NASA felt that this might increase the risk of it misfiring on the way to the Moon. By adopting an inward-opening hatch, cabin pressure would keep it tightly sealed in flight…but notoriously difficult to open on the ground. As the hands of fate turned on Apollo 1, pure oxygen and an immovable hatch, coupled with a mysterious ignition source, would spell death for Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.
With a pessimistic air of foreboding, the three astronauts crossed the gantry at Pad 34 on the afternoon of 27 January 1967. According to their secretary, Lola Morrow, all three men were unusually subdued and in no mood for the so-called ‘plugs-out’ test. (Morrow herself scornfully referred to Project Apollo as ‘Project Appalling’.) The previous evening, their backup crew – Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham – had sat aboard the spacecraft for a ‘plugs-in’ test, with Apollo dependent upon electrical power from ground support equipment and the hatch left open. After emerging from the test, Schirra took Grissom to one side. He hated the Block 1 design. “If you get the slightest glitch,” Schirra told his friend, “get outta there. I don’t like it.”
Communications with the nearby blockhouse, manned by astronaut Stu Roosa, caused difficulties from the start. Grissom was so frustrated that he even asked Joe Shea, at breakfast, to sit in the cabin with them and gain a manager’s perspective of the problems. Shea weighed up the pros and cons of rigging up an extra headset and squeezing himself, in shirtsleeves, into Apollo’s lower equipment bay, but decided against it. Even Deke Slayton considered sitting in the cabin with them, but elected to remain in the blockhouse to monitor the progress of the test.
Grissom took the commander’s seat on the left side of the cabin and quickly became aware of a foul odour – it smelled like sour buttermilk, he said – and technicians scrambled to the spacecraft to take air samples. Nothing was found to be amiss. Roger Chaffee climbed aboard, taking the right-side seat, and Ed White entered last, plopping into the centre seat. The command module’s hatch was closed, the Saturn IB boost cover was sealed and pure oxygen was steadily pumped into the cabin.
As the afternoon wore on, niggling problems hindered the test. A high oxygen flow indicator triggered the master alarm, time and time again, and communications with Roosa were so bad that Grissom exploded: “How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?” At 4:25 pm EST, a problem arose with a live microphone, which could not be switched off. NASA Test Conductor Skip Chauvin later recalled that communications were so bad that he could hardly hear the astronauts’ voices. Eventually, the test was put on hold at 5:40 pm. Forty minutes later, after more communications headaches, controllers prepared to transfer Apollo 1 to its internal fuel cells…whereupon the countdown was halted, yet again.
Suddenly, and without warning, controllers noticed the crew’s biomedical readings jump. This was a tell-tale indicator of increased oxygen flow in their space suits. At the same time, around 6:30:54 pm, other sensors registered a brief power surge aboard Apollo 1. Ten seconds later came the first cry from the spacecraft.
It was Roger Chaffee’s voice.
It was just one word.
The second part of this History article will appear tomorrow.Missions » Apollo » Missions » Apollo » Apollo 1 »