On the evening of 27 January 1967, Deke Slayton – one of original Mercury Seven astronauts and then-head of Flight Crew Operations – sat in the windowless blockhouse at Cape Canaveral’s Pad 34, listening to the barely audible voices of three astronauts from the Apollo 1 spacecraft. Atop the new Saturn IB booster, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were working their way through a so-called ‘plugs-out’ test, ahead of their scheduled Earth-orbital mission in late February. All afternoon, the test had been plagued with difficulties. Communications were rendered troublesome, technical glitches cropped up with disturbing regularity…and a few seconds after 6:35 pm EST Slayton heard a word which chilled him to the bone.
Quickly, he glanced over to a monitor which showed Apollo 1’s hatch window. What normally looked like a dark circle was now lit up, almost white. Frantic calls were now emanating from the spacecraft: “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit,” yelled Chaffee. “Let’s get out. We’re burning up!” Finally, there came a blood-curdling scream.
On the first floor of Pad 34, technician Gary Propst could clearly see Ed White on his monitor. The astronaut’s arms were raised over his head, fiddling to open the heavy two-piece hatch. Propst could not understand why the men did not simply blow the hatch, little realising that its inherent design had made it impossible for them to do this. Instead, White had to use a ratchet to laboriously release six bolts spanning the circumference of the inner section of the hatch. Years later, fellow astronaut Dave Scott wrote in Two Sides of the Moon that, during training, he and White had weightlifted the hatch over their heads whilst lying supine in their Apollo couches. Now, on the few seconds he had available before being overcome by smoke, White barely had chance to begin loosening the first bolt.
Tragically, it made little difference. Fire was gorging Apollo 1 and the accumulation of hot gases sealed the hatch shut with tremendous force. No man on Earth could possibly have opened the hatch under such circumstances; under normal conditions, it would require 90 seconds at best, and even the super-fit White had been unable to do it in less than two minutes during training.
Investigators would later discover that the fire began somewhere under Gus Grissom’s seat, on the left side of the cabin, perhaps in the vicinity of some chafed and unprotected wiring. Once sparked in Apollo 1’s pure oxygen atmosphere, it fed hungrily and quickly exploded into an inferno. Other combustible objects, including Velcro pads, nylon nets, polyurethane pads and paperwork, fanned the flames. The astronauts themselves had taken a Styrofoam block into the cabin to relieve the pressure against their backs, but this exploded like a bomb in the pure oxygen. “At such pressure, and bathed by pure oxygen,” wrote Grissom’s biographer, Ray Boomhower, “a cigarette could be reduced to ashes in seconds and even metal could burn.”
At length, pressures exceeded Apollo 1’s design limits and the capsule ruptured at 6:31:19 pm, filling the Pad 34 white room with thick smoke. By now, the poisonous fumes had asphyxiated the three astronauts to death. A few metres away, pad leader Don Babbitt sprang from his desk and barked at lead technician Jim Greaves to get the men out of the command module. But it was hopeless. The waves of heat and pressure were so intense that the would-be rescuers were repeatedly driven back. “The smoke was extremely heavy,” Babbitt later recalled. “It appeared to me to be a heavy thick grey smoke, very billowing, but very thick.” None of the pad crew could see far beyond the end of their noses and they had to run their hands over the outside of the boost cover to find holes into which they could insert tools to open the hatch.
No less than 27 technicians were treated that evening by the Cape’s dispensary for the effects of inhalation. Don Babbitt had to order Jim Greaves outside at one point, lest he pass out. Firefighters eventually opened the hatch and the would-be saviours beheld a hellish scene of destruction: by the flickering glimmer of a flashlight, they could see little but burnt wiring and an incinerated interior. According to firefighter Jim Burch, it took a few seconds before the ethereal calmness convinced them that Grissom, White and Chaffee were gone. It was 6:37 pm, five and a half minutes since Chaffee’s initial shout. America’s dream of landing on the Moon was in tatters. Choking over the phone to Deke Slayton, Babbitt could not find the words to describe what he saw.
Slayton and flight surgeon Fred Kelly arrived at the base of Pad 34 minutes later. They realised that it would take hours to remove the dead men from Apollo 1, because the heat had caused everything to melt and fuse together. Moreover, there remained a very real risk that the heat could accidentally trigger the Saturn IB’s escape tower and the pad was cleared of all personnel. Not until the early hours of the 28th were the bodies removed. None of them had suffered life-threatening burns and all had died from asphyxia when their oxygen hoses burned and their suits rapidly filled with poisonous smoke.
In his autobiography, Slayton described it the “worst day” of his career and even the normally teetotal astronaut Frank Borman – who would have commanded Apollo 3 on a high-Earth-orbit mission, later in 1967 – admitted that he went out and got drunk after the accident. “I’m not proud to admit it,” Borman once said, “but…we ended up throwing glasses, like a scene out of an old World War One movie.” The wives of the three dead men, Betty Grissom, Pat White and Martha Chaffee, later sued North American for its shoddy spacecraft. Each received hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation in 1972.
Pad 34’s first launch should have begun the first Earth-orbital test of the spacecraft which would someday transport men to the Moon. Instead, it had become the scene for the worst tragedy yet to hit America’s human space programme. The pad itself had been built in 1960 and saw the first launch of the Saturn I rocket on 27 October of the following year, in which a dummy upper stage had been lofted on a suborbital trajectory into the Atlantic. Three more Saturn I launches and two unmanned Saturn IB launches followed, with Apollo 1 scheduled to be the seventh overall. As circumstances transpired, the actual seventh launch from Pad 34 would not come until the last quarter of 1968…and would be the last mission and the only manned mission ever despatched from this site.
By the summer of 1968, after many safety improvements, Apollo was ready to fly with men aboard. Astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham had spent more than 600 hours in the command module simulator and in early October they arrived at Pad 34 for their launch into orbit. The countdown proceeded without incident until ten minutes before liftoff on the 11th, whereupon thrust-chamber jacket chilldown was initiated for the Saturn’s S-IVB second stage. It took slightly longer than expected and demanded a halt of almost three minutes. At length, the countdown resumed at 10:56 am and Apollo 7 speared for the heavens at 11:02 am.
If the early stages of ascent seemed slow and laborious, Time magazine told its readers, it was unsurprising: for the Saturn IB weighed 590,000 kg, only a little less than the 725,750 kg thrust of the first stage. Inside the command module, only Eisele had a good view of the commotion that was going on outside. “We had a boost protective cover over the command module,” Cunningham told the NASA oral historian. “There’s an escape rocket that you can use any time until you get rid of it, and that’s a little after a minute into the flight. Because that rocket puts out a plume, you had to have a cover over the command module so that you wouldn’t coat the windows. The only place you can see out is over Donn’s head in the centre seat.” Eleven minutes after launch, the Saturn IB achieved orbit.
And on its last-ever launch, Pad 34 had exorcised the demons of the Block 1 Apollo spacecraft and had laid the ghosts of Grissom, White and Chaffee to rest. Yet today, as it steadily rusts in the salty Atlantic air, the eerie silence of the Pad 34 site cannot fail to convince the casual visitor that this is place of reverence; reverence not only in honour of the brave souls who lost their lives here, all those years ago, but reverence in that this place was the spot from which humanity’s first tentative steps to reach the Moon were taken.
This is part of a series of History articles which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus upon the launch of Apollo 11 in July 1969 from Pad 39A; a mission destined to deliver the first men to the surface of the Moon.Missions » Apollo » Missions » Apollo » Apollo 1 »