On January 27, 1967, a blaze erupted during a launch simulation of the Apollo 1 aircraft. Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee were all killed when they were unable to open the Command Module's door hatch in time to escape the inferno.
Three decades later, astronaut Alan Shepard—the first American to travel into space— recounted the accident that cost his comrades their lives in his book Moon Shot, a chronicle of the devastating losses and ecstatic successes that defined the Apollo era. Written by Shepard and astronaut Deke Slayton with journalist Jay Barbree, Moon Shot is a tribute to all who helped America put men on the Moon, in the words of the astronauts themselves.
The passage below recounts the lives that were lost in America's early quest for the stars, during the unthinkable events of January 27, 1967.
No one saw it begin. No one knew then, or ever, just when it came to life. The catastrophe that was to engulf Apollo 1 at T-minus 10 minutes and holding had commenced hours earlier. A technician on the Saturn gantry had reviewed his checklist of procedures and time lines for events to be activated. The hatch had been sealed, the astronauts secured in their couches, the spacecraft powered up. Internal cabin pressure began rising for the tight seal required for the “contamination-free” environment.
Valves opened, pure oxygen flowed into the cabin. The pressure went through changes. Ambient air of 21 percent oxygen, nearly 79 percent nitrogen, and a smattering of other normal atmospheric gases were flushed from the three-man cabin. Sensors confirmed the desired reading of 16.7 pounds per square inch of 100 percent oxygen. And the cabin, its equipment, wiring, plastic, Velcro, suits, instruments, anything and everything was soaked in pure oxygen. If everything had functioned perfectly, the tragic events that overtook Spacecraft 012 might never have happened. But this was a ship beset by problems and one that couldn’t even communicate properly with a blockhouse sixteen hundred feet distant. This was the spacecraft that an Apollo quality-control inspector, Thomas Baron, had condemned as “sloppy and unsafe,” the ship that spacecraft manager Joe Shea admitted had been plagued with more than twenty thousand failures in its construction and assembly. This was the same craft John Shinkle, Apollo program manager, castigated as missing at least “half the damn engineering work” that had been listed as completed, and that Rocco Petrone, director of launch operations, railed against as a totally unacceptable “bucket of bolts.” This was the spacecraft that had been awash in a thick soup of 100 percent oxygen for more than five hours.
Pure oxygen under normal conditions is one of the most dangerous and corrosive gases known. In a short time it can corrode and transform iron and other metals into flaky garbage. As a fire’s oxidizer, in its pure form, it fans flames at their most rapid pace. It had been used in the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft without trouble, and NASA engineers had become complacent about the possibility of a fire. For more than five hours the oxygen in the pressurized cabin of 012 had permeated the surface of everything in the cabin, everything from plastic to paper checklists, to nonmetallic insulation, to aluminum and fabric—everything. Pure oxygen ate into the material and squeezed under outer molecule layers.
Below the couch on which Gus Grissom lay ran bundles of wires. All kinds of wires performing all kinds of tasks. Some carried electrical current to different operating systems of 012. Others were hooked to the suits of the astronauts for medical monitoring and communications. The wires had not been brought together in sealed and protected tubing but had been laced together with plastic and other strapping. The wire was in lousy shape. It had been moved, shaken, pushed, shoved, squeezed, stepped on, and in some cases had lost its outer insulation to constant rubbing and friction. It was a mess. Somewhere beneath the seat of the commander of Apollo 1 an open wire chafed. Insulation was torn. The wire, charged with electrical power, lay bare. It sparked.
The spark exploded. In an instant faster than thought, the tiny flicker of electricity became a massive shock wave of flame, which fed on the oxygen-soaked environment of the pressurized capsule interior. In the blockhouse, Deke Slayton and Rocco Petrone froze where they were, muscles stiffened, voices cut off in mid-sentence, eyes staring in disbelief at the television monitors displaying the interior conditions of Spacecraft 012. There wasn’t time to verbalize thought. Something horrifying, unbelievable, was rampaging in Apollo.
In that same moment, what had been the cabin of Apollo became an incredible whirlwind of fire raging and tearing at everything it could reach. As fast as the shock wave smashed back and forth against the three men caught helplessly inside, Slayton and Petrone knew their world would never again be the same. The monitors and instruments were messengers from hell. As Deke flicked his eyes from one gauge to another, he saw a huge supply of oxygen flowing into the spacesuits.
The gauges showing electrical currents had gone mad. The flow surged wildly, needles flickering. The cabin temperature gauges were all jammed hard against the upper limits of their pegs. A radar beacon died; in a split second it simply fell off line. Throats clinched with the awful shock. Deke, Rocco, and the others with them, could only stare, wordless with disbelief. Deke’s worst nightmares were alive and screaming.
On the medical monitors Ed White’s pulse rate leapt crazily upward. The gauges showed sudden bursts of movement by the three men. “Fire!” A single word from Ed White followed immediately by the deep voice of Gus Grissom: “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” Then, before an instant could pass, Roger Chaffee: “Fire!” Then a garbled transmission and the final plea: “Get us out!” Another transmission, words no one would ever understand, and—
Alan Shepard was in Dallas, about to make a dinner speech, when someone hurried to his side at the head table. In a hoarse whisper he told Alan that Gus, Ed, and Roger were dead, killed by a fire at the launch pad. The news hit Alan with the force of a sledgehammer.
Numbed with shock, he moved in a fog to the podium. He fought to speak, his voice a rasping, almost silent choking sound. “I ... I have just been informed of the loss ... the loss of my comrades ... ”
A long silence followed. Alan Shepard remembers little of what he said that night.
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Featured photo (from left to right) Grissom, White, and Chaffee via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Glenn, Shepard, and Grissom via 1950sUnlimited / Flickr (CC).