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On January 27, 1967, tragedy struck the Apollo program when a flash fire occurred in command module 012

during a launch pad test of the Apollo/Saturn space vehicle being prepared for the first piloted flight, the AS-204 mission. Three astronauts, Lt. Col. Virgil I. Grissom, a veteran of Mercury and Gemini missions; Lt. Col. Edward H. White, the astronaut who had performed the first United States extravehicular activity during the Gemini program; and Roger B. Chaffee, an astronaut preparing for his first space flight, died in this tragic accident. A seven-member board, under the direction of the NASA Langley Research Center Director, Dr. Floyd L. Thompson, conducted a comprehensive investigation to pinpoint the cause of the fire. The final report, completed in April 1967 was subsequently submitted to the NASA Administrator. The report presented the results of the investigation and made specific recommendations that led to major design and engineering modifications, and revisions to test planning, test discipline, manufacturing processes and procedures, and quality control. With these changes, the overall safety of the command and service module and the lunar module was increased substantially. The AS-204 mission was redesignated Apollo I in honor of the crew.

The Apollo spacecraft is the entire structure atop the launch vehicle. It is 82 feet tall and has five distinct parts: the command module, the service module, the lunar module, the launch escape system, and the spacecraft-lunar module adapter. The three modules make up the basic spacecraft; the launch escape system and adapter are special purpose units which are jettisoned early in the mission after they have fulfilled their function. The launch escape system is essentially a small rocket which will thrust the command module--with the astronauts inside--to safety in case of a malfunction in the launch vehicle on the pad or during the early part of boost. The spacecraft lunar module adapter serves as a smooth aerodynamic enclosure for the lunar module during boost and as the connecting link between the spacecraft and the launch vehicle. The basic difference in the two versions was in the addition, in Block II, of some equipment and systems designed specifically for the lunar mission.

Edward White, Command Pilot Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Commander Roger Chaffee, Pilot

One of the worst tragedies in the history of spaceflight occurred on January 27, 1967 when the crew of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire in the Apollo Command Module during a preflight test at Cape Canaveral. They were training for the first crewed Apollo flight, an Earth orbiting mission scheduled to be launched on 21 February. They were taking part in a "plugs-out" test, in which the Command Module was mounted on the Saturn 1B on the launch pad just as it would be for the actual launch, but the Saturn 1B was not fueled. The plan was to go through an entire countdown sequence. At 1 p.m. on Friday, 27 January 1967 the astronauts entered the capsule on Pad 34 to begin the test. A number of minor problems cropped up which delayed the test considerably and finally a failure in communications forced a hold in the count at 5:40 p.m. At 6:31 one of the astronauts (probably Chaffee) reported, "Fire, I smell fire." Two seconds later White was heard to say, "Fire in the cockpit." The fire spread throughout the cabin in a matter of seconds. The last crew communication ended 17 seconds after the start of the fire, followed by loss of all telemetry. The Apollo hatch could only open inward and was held closed by a number of latches which had to be operated by ratchets. It was also held closed by the interior pressure, which was higher than outside atmospheric pressure and required venting of the command module before the hatch could be opened. It took at least 90 seconds to get the hatch open under ideal conditions. Because the cabin had been filled with a pure oxygen atmosphere at normal pressure for the test and there had been many hours for the oxygen to permeate all the material in the cabin, the fire spread rapidly and the astronauts had no chance to get the hatch open. Nearby technicians tried to get to the hatch but were repeatedly driven back by the heat and smoke. By the time they succeeded in getting the hatch open roughly 5 minutes after the fire started the astronauts had already perished, probably within the first 30 seconds, due to smoke inhalation and burns. The Apollo program was put on hold while an exhaustive investigation was made of the accident. It was concluded that the most likely cause was a spark from a short circuit in a bundle of wires that ran to the left and just in front of Grissom's seat. The large amount of flammable material in the cabin in the oxygen environment allowed the fire to start and spread quickly. A number of changes were instigated in the program over the next year and a half, including designing a new hatch which opened outward and could be operated quickly, removing much of the flammable material and replacing it with self-extinguishing components, using a nitrogenoxygen mixture at launch, and recording all changes and overseeing all modifications to the spacecraft design more rigorously. The mission, originally designated Apollo 204 but commonly referred to as Apollo 1, was officially assigned the name "Apollo 1" in honor of Grissom, White, and Chaffee. The first Saturn V launch (uncrewed) in November 1967 was designated Apollo 4 (no missions were ever designated Apollo 2 or 3). The Apollo 1 Command Module capsule 012 was impounded and studied after the accident and was then locked away in a storage facility at NASA Langley Research Center. The changes made to the Apollo Command Module as a result of the tragedy resulted in a highly reliable craft which, with the exception of Apollo 13, helped make the complex and dangerous trip to the Moon almost commonplace. The eventual success of the Apollo program is a tribute to Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, three fine astronauts whose tragic loss was not in vain.