Five decades ago, this month, one of the worst tragedies in the history of U.S. space exploration unfolded with horrifying suddenness on Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy in Florida. “The Fire”—as it became infamously known—tore through the Command Module (CM) of the Apollo 1 spacecraft, during a “plugs-out” ground systems test on the evening of 27 January 1967, killing astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. It was a disaster which almost halted in its tracks President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade and, even today, the loss of Grissom and his crew leaves a dark stain on the glory of the Apollo program.
Today, Pad 34 is overgrown by bushes, weeds, and a handful of wild pepper trees, as it decays in the salty Atlantic air. A faded “Abandon in Place” sign adorns one of its skeletal legs, whilst near its base are a pair of plaques, memorializing the loss of an astronaut who almost drowned at the end of his first spaceflight, the loss of America’s first spacewalker, and the loss of the man who would have been the youngest U.S. citizen ever to journey beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The plaques dedicate themselves to Grissom, White, and Chaffee and note simply: “Launch Complex 34, Friday, 27 January 1967, 1831 Hours,” paying tribute to the men’s “ultimate sacrifice,” a half-century ago. Nearby are three granite benches, one apiece to honor the fallen men.
Each year—and this 50th year will likely be no exception—NASA invites the families of the astronauts to visit the spot and reflect upon the calamity which engulfed them on 27 January 1967. To pause at Pad 34 and consider its significance is to consider the astonishing ability of Project Apollo to rebound from such a tragedy and plant human bootprints in lunar dust, just 30 months later.
Yet the “Block 1” version of the Apollo spacecraft, in the minds of both Grissom and his backup, veteran astronaut Wally Schirra, was a sloppy and unsafe machine. Both men had spent months overseeing poor performance and low standards on the part of prime contractor North American, and, by the fall of 1966, just months before the launch of Apollo 1, hundreds of technical problems remained unresolved: a faulty glycol pump in the environmental control system, leaky thrusters, coolant glitches, bad wiring, and inadequate software, to name but a few. Grissom’s crew was so angry that they prepared a mocking photograph of themselves, heads bowed in prayer over a model of their spacecraft. “It’s not that we don’t trust you,” Grissom scornfully explained, “but this time, we’ve decided to go over your head!” On 22 January 1967, shortly before flying to the Cape, he plucked a lemon from a tree in his Houston backyard, flew it to Florida in his luggage, and hung it over the Block I simulator hatch.
To be fair, North American had faced their own technical challenges. NASA had mandated that the Apollo Command Module (CM) should operate a pure oxygen atmosphere—an extreme fire hazard, admittedly, but infinitely less complex than trying to implement a more Earth-like oxygen-nitrogen mix, which, if misjudged, could suffocate the men before they even knew about it. In space, the cabin would be maintained at a pressure of about one-fifth of an atmosphere, but from ground tests would be pressurized to slightly more than 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 during its Mercury and Gemini programs, ruled against it.
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, pressurized 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, then-head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD), in his autobiography, Deke, “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 the Apollo CM’s hatch: a complex device which actually came in two cumbersome pieces: an inner section, which opened into the 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 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 early 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 longtime 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 Apollo Spacecraft Program Office (ASPO) manager 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 Command Pilot’s seat on the left side of the cabin and quickly became aware of a foul odor—akin to sour buttermilk—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 as Pilot, and Ed White entered last, plopping into the center seat in his role as Senior Pilot. The Command Module’s hatch was closed, the “boost cover” of the Saturn IB rocket 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 at one point Grissom exploded: “How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?” At 4:25 p.m. EST, a problem arose with a live microphone, which could not be switched off. NASA Test Conductor Clarence “Skip” Chauvin later recalled that communications deteriorated so badly that he could hardly hear the astronauts’ voices. Eventually, the test was put on hold at 5:40 p.m. 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 p.m., 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.
And it was just one word.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.