Apollo 1 Fire 50 Years On
Marking 50 years since the Apollo 1 disaster.
Getting into space is difficult.
Setting yourself the challenge of reaching the Moon within a decade borders on impossible.
But that was the position that NASA found itself in in 1961, as President Kennedy set out his vision for America to “…commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” [Watch: Kennedy’s address to Congress].
Fast forward eight years and, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the Moon, it could be easy to think that everything had gone according to plan. Spaceflight is rarely that simple though.
50 years ago, while American revellers recovered from New Year celebrations, NASA was excitedly preparing for their first manned Apollo launch. Apollo AS-204 (now referred to as Apollo 1) was scheduled for take-off on 21 February 1967. The three astronauts selected to take this necessary first step along the road to a successful Moon landing were Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. They were to be America’s first three-person space crew.
But the events that unfolded in January 1967 threatened to derail the Apollo programme, and, tragically, cost all three men their lives.
The crew of Apollo 1 were selected by Deke Slayton, the Director of Flight Crew Operations, back in early 1966. Apollo 1 was to be Roger Chaffee’s first spaceflight. Alongside him, Slayton selected two experienced astronauts. Ed White had flown on Gemini 4, becoming America’s first spacewalker; whilst Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury Seven, offered as much experience of spaceflight as any American could at the time – he was also a strong candidate to become the first person to set foot on the Moon.
On 27 January 1967, less than a month before the scheduled launch date, the crew entered their Command Module for a routine test. However, this date left an indelible mark on the history of American spaceflight as tragedy struck. With the astronauts sealed inside the Command Module, a fire broke out in the oxygen rich environment. Unable to escape, all three astronauts were killed. Investigations showed the cause of death as cardiac arrest from excessive amounts of carbon monoxide.
Intensive investigations into the disaster followed, with NASA convening the Apollo 204 Accident Review Board. All manned flights were cancelled and the Apollo programme and dreams of landing on the Moon were put on hold.
The fire was caused by an electrical fault, and the Review Board pinpointed major issues with the design of the Command Module. Too many flammable materials inside a spacecraft with a high pressure, pure oxygen environment, coupled with difficulties in opening the hatch and a lack of emergency preparedness from ground control crew, all contributed to the fateful events [Read: Full Senate report on the Apollo 1 fire].
The Command Module needed to go back to the drawing board. Apollo 1 had used a Block I Command Module, a prototype only intended for use in low Earth orbit. North American Aviation, the company that built the spacecraft, were already working on the blueprint for a Block II model, designed to carry astronauts to the Moon. Following the terrible events of 27 January, all Apollo manned flights were immediately re-designated to Block II.
Wiring for the Command Module was completely re-thought. This piece of Apollo-era equipment – an Annunciator, or Warning Indicator Panel, from a Block I Command Module – was a part of this process, and acquired by the National Space Centre (see images). Its function was to light up to warn the astronauts of any system failures. One panel of lights has been removed to reveal the wiring and circuit board behind, suggesting that this object was a part of the exhaustive wiring review on every component in the Command Module following the Apollo 1 fire.
The Annunciator is currently in storage but can be seen on display from time-to-time in our Space Oddities gallery. This area will be dedicated to Apollo during 2019 to celebrate the 50th-anniversary of the Moon landings, featuring many Apollo related objects on temporary display.
Perhaps remarkably, and in testament to the spirit of the times, NASA recovered from the disaster to achieve the goal of landing on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. In fact, Grissom himself once said “If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life”.
Grissom’s tragic prophesy summed up the single-minded determination that was needed to accomplish humankind’s most incredible achievement. Apollo 1 is a reminder of the human sacrifice made to get to the Moon. 50 years on, it also serves as a reminder of the attitude that will once again be necessary if humanity is to land on Mars.
Today we remember Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee as brave pioneers from the early days of spaceflight.
About the Author: Dan Kendall is the curator at the National Space Centre.