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Apollo 1 - Deadly Beginnings

Despite the many conflicting conspiracy theories stating the contrary, humans really set foot on the moon on June 24, 1969. The Apollo 11 mission is widely known as one of humanity's greatest moments.

These things don't just come out of nowhere. President John F. Kennedy's vow to land a man on the moon by the end of the 60s put severe pressure on NASA. Ten missions preceded the legendary journey, so why don't more people know about them?

Apollo 1, the mission that started it all, did not go well. Unlike Apollo 11, their mission was much simpler. Simply go to space, and test the command module for later missions.

They never made it that far.

The Crew

Virgil I. Grissom was not new to the skies. He was an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who flew over 100 combat missions in the Korean War. He studied Aeronautical Engineering, and became a test pilot after the war.

In 1959, he was selected as part of NASA's Mercury team, and was one of the first humans in space. Six years later, he orbited the Earth three times on the first manned Gemini flight.

Finally, he was chosen as the Commander of the first in a series of flights that had the moon in its sights. AS-204, which would later become known as Apollo 1.

Edward H. White was a veteran of the Gemini program as well. He flew on Gemini IV, and became one of the first humans to perform a spacewalk during his mission. After which he said:

"I'm coming back in... and it's the saddest moment of my life."
Edward H. White

He was inspired to join the astronaut program after reading an article about their role in the future of humanity.

Not only that, but he was the man who convinced the legendary astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, to sign up as well. His involvement in the space program started when he flew the planes that would train astronauts for the zero-gravity environment of space.

Roger B. Chaffee was a boy scout, who's academic achievement led him on a meteoric rise that his finances couldn't keep up with. He worked in engineering, and tried to fund his passion for flying.

After finally earning his private pilot's license, he joined the Navy as a pilot. Roger excelled in his duties, and applied to join the astronaut program in 1962. He studied his Master’s degree in Reliability Engineering while going through the selection process.

After a year, he was notified that he had been selected as part of the third group of astronauts.

"I was very pleased with the appointment. I've always wanted to fly and perform adventurous flying tasks all my life. Ever since the first seven Mercury astronauts were named, I've been keeping my studies up."
Roger B. Chaffee

The Module

NASA wanted a new command module for the trip to the moon. They needed something bigger, and more advanced for the long journey. So in 1963, they got Joseph F. Shea to head the Apollo Space Office.

He had been instrumental in getting the different centers of NASA to agree on what form the Lunar mission would take. They settled on Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, where a command module orbits the moon, while the Lunar Lander descends to the surface.

North American Aviation was contracted to build the Command Module, which would be tested in the Apollo 1 flight. The relationship between Shea and NAA was a contentious one.

NASA kept making alterations to the design of the craft after construction had already begun. This led to delays, and a lot of disgruntled engineers working on the module.

Apollo 1's command module had a pure-oxygen atmosphere, making it a very hospitable environment for a fire. The crew also brought up the amount of flammable material in the cabin. Concerns about the copious Velcro straps, and nylon netting scattered across the interior, were dismissed.

Another issue was that the module's only exit was a small hatch that opened inwards, and was bolted shut. In perfect conditions, it took 90 seconds to open, although the Apollo 1 team was never able to get it open that fast.

Joseph F. Shea received the crew's, who had an engineering background, concerns. He gave the command module a passing grade anyway. So they sent him this crew portrait:

The portrait was captioned:

"It isn't that we don't trust you, Joe, but this time we've decided to go over your head."

Shea apparently told NAA to remove excess flammable materials from the module, but never bothered to check if they had.

The Fire

Everything was cleared for a ground test of the command module. It had just completed an altitude rating, and was removed from the testing chamber, to be mounted on the rocket in December 1966.

The shoddiness of the build was clear. Parts kept shorting out, or leaking, and had to be replaced often. According to an account in the 1994 book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jeffrey Kluger, and Jim Lovell, the test crew emerged from the altitude test with an uneasy feeling:

"When the trio climbed out of the ship,... Schirra made it clear that he was not pleased with what he had seen," and that he later warned Grissom and Shea that "there's nothing wrong with this ship that I can point to, but it just makes me uncomfortable. Something about it just doesn't ring right," and that Grissom should get out at the first sign of trouble.

Grissom was interviewed by the New York Times in December 1966 about concerns around the safety of the Command Module:

"You sort of have to put that out of your mind. There's always a possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, of course; this can happen on any flight; it can happen on the last one as well as the first one. So, you just plan as best you can to take care of all these eventualities, and you get a well-trained crew and you go fly."

The crew entered the module on January 27, 1967. Just one month before their February 21 launch date. NASA believed the test to be low risk, as there was no fuel, and all pyrotechnic systems were disabled for the test.

At 1 pm, the crew entered the module, and were strapped down. Grissom noted a smell like rancid buttermilk in the air supply, so the test was delayed while air samples were tested.

By 2:42 pm, no cause for the odor had been identified, so the test was back on. The crew were sealed into their tomb. Sensors within the module detected them moving around.

Grissom's microphone was faulty, it was stuck on an open channel, and had poor audio quality. He remarked:

"How are we going to get to the Moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?"

The test was delayed again. They resumed at 6:31 pm. Nine seconds in, there was a voltage spike in AC Bus 2. After which Grissom was heard on the microphone:

"Hey, fire!"

A few seconds of scuffling can be heard, before Chaffee says:

"We've got a fire in the cockpit!"

Thereafter, Grissom can be heard screaming:

"We've got a bad fire—Let's get out ... We're burning up"

The transmission ends with a horrific cry of agony.

Ground crews were scrambled, but their gas masks weren't designed for smoke. That, and the heat, kept them from getting to the module quickly. They watched in horror as the fire burst through the module's sides.

Contact with the outer atmosphere quickly extinguished the pure-oxygen fire. This filled the cockpit with deadly carbon monoxide and smoke.

Another 5 minutes passed before the ground crew got the hatch open. When the smoke cleared, they found all three astronauts dead within. They were badly burnt, but the cause of death was found to be inhalation of super-heated fumes that destroyed their lungs.

Grissom and White were found near the hatch. They died trying to escape.

The fire led to redesigns, and more care taken to ensuring the safety of astronauts. The full audio can be heard here, but a warning, it is disturbing.



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