The Apollo program changed forever on Jan. 27, 1967, when a flash fire swept through the Apollo 1 command module during a launch rehearsal test. The three men inside perished despite the best efforts of the ground crew. It would take more than 18 months, and extensive redesigns, before NASA sent more men into space.
NASA had a lofty goal, set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. Earlier Mercury and Gemini flights had been the first steps toward that goal. Now the Apollo missions would take humanity even further. The first manned mission was originally designated Apollo Saturn-204, or AS-204, but was later renamed Apollo 1.
The Apollo 1 crew commander, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, had earned his stripes. The Air Force veteran of the Korean War was among the first group of astronauts, the Mercury Seven. Grissom had been America's second man in space. On that mission, Mercury's Liberty Bell 7, the hatch door blew for unknown reasons upon splashdown. Grissom ended up in the water and nearly drowned.
Some in the Astronaut Office were skeptical that his reputation would recover (many believed Grissom touched the door; he swore he didn't). However, Grissom successfully commanded the first Gemini flight, Gemini 3, and was selected to do the same for Apollo.
Fellow spaceflight veteran Ed White, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, was the first American to make a spacewalk, on Gemini 4 in 1965. The images of him soaring in space for 23 minutes are still frequently seen today; it is considered one of history's most memorable spacewalks.
Roger Chaffee was a seasoned Navy lieutenant commander who joined the program in 1963. Although a rookie in space, he had spent years supporting the Gemini program, most publicly as CapCom on Gemini 4. Now getting a chance to fly after five years in the program, he said, "I think it will be a lot of fun."
Gone in an instant
Every astronaut in the Apollo program had flight experience, and many were test pilots. They were used to seeing machines under development and dealing with delays, and assessing the airplanes' readiness for flight. In the view of many of these astronauts, the Apollo command module just wasn't ready yet. Engineering changes were still in progress as NASA prepared for the countdown test.
On his last visit home in Texas, Jan. 22, 1967, Grissom grabbed a lemon off a citrus tree in the backyard. His wife, Betty, asked what he was going to do with it. "I'm going to hang it on that spacecraft," he answered as he kissed her goodbye. He did so once he arrived at the Cape.
The morning of the test, the crew suited up and detected a foul odor in the breathing oxygen, which took about an hour to fix. Then the communications system acted up. Shouting through the noise, Grissom vented: "How are we going to get to the moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?"
With communications problems dragging on, the practice countdown was held. Then at 6:31 p.m. came a frightening word from the spacecraft: "Fire."
Deke Slayton, who oversaw crew selections at NASA and was present for the test, could see white flames in a closed-circuit television monitor pointing towards the spacecraft. The crew struggled to get out. Technicians raced to the scene, trying to fight the fire with extinguishers amid faulty breathing masks. [Video: Apollo 1 Remembered – Report from the Archives]
At last, the door was open, but it was too late.
The aftermath and changes
There were a lot of things that were wrong with the Apollo 1 spacecraft, prompting investigations into what had occurred.
A NASA review board found a stray spark (probably from damaged wires near Grissom's couch) started the fire in the pure oxygen environment. Fed by flammable features such as nylon netting and foam pads, the blaze quickly spread. [Infographic: How the Apollo 1 Fire Happened]
Further, the hatch door – intended to keep the astronauts and the atmosphere securely inside the spacecraft – turned out to be too tough to open under the unfortunate circumstances.
The board listed a damning set of circumstances, failures and recommendations for future spacecraft designers to consider.
The U.S. Senate conducted its own investigation and hearings and published recommendations of its own, while saying NASA's failure to report its problems with Apollo "was an unquestionably serious dereliction."
Chagrined, NASA and the companies building the Apollo spacecraft got to work. The flammable oxygen environment for ground tests was replaced with a nitrogen-oxygen mix. Flammable items were removed. A new respect developed between the astronauts and the contractors concerning design changes, which were implemented more effectively. Most notably, the door was completely redesigned so that it would open in mere seconds when the crew needed to get out in a hurry. [Photos: The Apollo 1 Fire]
Decades later, NASA recalls the Apollo 1 incident every January in an annual Day of Remembrance. It also honors the Challenger and Columbia crews, who died in 1986 and 2003, respectively.
While spaceflight is a hard business, NASA acknowledged what happened to the Apollo 1 crew could have been remedied before a tragedy ever occurred. It serves as a tough lesson for spacefarers to remember.