In the windowless blockhouse at Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy, Deke Slayton heard the call of “rookie” astronaut Roger Chaffee and glanced over to a monitor which showed the hatch window of the Apollo 1 Command Module (CM). It was Friday, 27 January 1967, and Chaffee and his crewmates—Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Senior Pilot Ed White—were sealed inside the spacecraft, atop its unfueled Saturn IB booster, performing a “plugs-out” systems test. As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, the test had been repeatedly postponed through the afternoon, due to niggling technical glitches.
Now, as the normally dark hatch window turned white, Slayton realized that something drastically abnormal was occurring. At 6:31 p.m., Chaffee called “Fire” and, within seconds, further frantic calls emanated from Apollo 1. “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit,” Chaffee yelled. “Let’s get out. We’re burning up!” Finally, there was a blood-curdling shriek.
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 CM’s heavy, two-piece hatch. Propst could not understand why the men did not simply blow the hatch, little realizing that its inherent design made this impossible. White had to use a ratchet to laboriously release six bolts spanning the circumference of the inner section of the hatch. Years later, astronaut Dave Scott—who had trained as White’s backup between March and December 1966—wrote in his autobiography, Two Sides of the Moon, that during training, he and White weightlifted the hatch over their heads whilst lying supine in their Apollo couches. Now, in 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. In 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. However, 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.
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, in Gus Grissom: The Lost Astronaut, “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 conical capsule ruptured at 6:31:19 p.m., filling the Pad 34 white room with thick smoke. By now, the poisonous fumes had asphyxiated the three astronauts to death. Not far away, pad leader Don Babbitt sprang from his desk and barked at lead technician Jim Greaves to get the three men out of the spacecraft. 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 Saturn IB 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 saviors 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 p.m., barely 5.5 minutes since Chaffee’s initial shout. America’s dream of landing on the Moon before the decade’s end 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 a few minutes later. They realized 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 28 January 1967 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, Deke, Slayton described it the “worst day” of his career, and even the normally teetotal astronaut Frank Borman 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.
For Project Apollo, almost two years would elapse before three astronauts would board the spacecraft in October 1968 and complete its first piloted flight in low-Earth orbit. By then, the mighty Saturn V booster had also been put through its paces and, over the course of the following months, America would deliver Apollo to lunar orbit and conduct a critical series of steps which enabled Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins, and Buzz Aldrin to accomplish humanity’s most exalted goal in July 1969. Two years later, in the summer of 1971, as he completed the last of his three Moonwalks, Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott laid a small aluminum figurine and plaque on the lunar soil.
It bore the names of all the known U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had died whilst advancing our future in space. The list included 14 names, including fallen Gemini IX pilots Elliot See and Charlie Bassett, the world’s first human spacefarer, Yuri Gagarin, and the recently-deceased trio of cosmonauts from Russia’s ill-fated Soyuz 11 mission to the Salyut 1 space station. And within that list were the names of Apollo 1 Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger Chaffee: three men whose lives were cut short in their prime, who had already forged names for themselves—including America’s first spacewalker—and who might, had circumstances been different, have ended up planting their own bootprints into the lunar regolith.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will remember the anniversary of the Challenger accident on 28 January 1986, when the seeming infallibility of the space shuttle was changed forever.