The flag-draped coffin of Astronaut Virgil I. Grissom is being escorted at Arlington Cemetery, Va., by his fellow astronauts.
Astronauts for the first Apollo Mission (L-R) Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, U.S. Air Force; Edward H. White, U.S. Air Force; and Roger B. Chaffee, U.S. Navy.
The capsule after the tragic fire.
The Tragedy of Apllo 1
In the midst of efforts on the part of NASA to reach the Moon by the end of the 1960s, tragedy struck the Apollo program. On January 27, 1967, Apollo-Saturn (AS) 204 (Apollo 1), scheduled to be the first space flight with astronauts aboard the capsule, sat on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, moving through simulation tests. The three astronauts to fly on this mission—"Gus" Grissom, Edward White, and Roger B. Chaffee—were aboard running through a mock launch sequence. At 6:31 p.m., after several hours of work, a fire broke out in the spacecraft and the pure oxygen atmosphere intended for the flight helped it burn with intensity. In a flash, flames engulfed the capsule and the astronauts died of asphyxiation. It took the ground crew five minutes to open the hatch. When they did so they found three bodies. Although three other astronauts had been killed before this time—all in plane crashes—these were the first deaths directly attributable to the U.S. space program.
Shock gripped NASA and the Nation during the days that followed. James Webb, NASA administrator, told the media at the time, “We've always known that something like this was going to happen soon or later....who would have thought that the first tragedy would be on the ground?” The day after the fire, NASA appointed an eight-member investigation board, that set out to discover the details of the tragedy: what happened, why it happened, could it happen again, what was at fault, and how could NASA recover?
The members of the board quickly found that the fire had been caused by a short circuit in the electrical system that ignited combustible materials in the spacecraft fed by the oxygen atmosphere. They also found that it could have been prevented and called for several modifications to the spacecraft, including a move to a less oxygen-rich environment. Changes to the capsule followed quickly, and within a little more than a year it was ready for flight.
NASA Administrator James E. Webb reported these findings to various congressional committees and took a personal grilling at every meeting. His answers were sometimes evasive and always defensive. The New York Times, which was usually critical of Webb, had a field day with this situation and said that NASA stood for “Never a Straight Answer.” While the ordeal was personally taxing, whether by happenstance or design, Webb deflected much of the backlash over the fire from both NASA as an agency and from the Johnson administration. While he was personally tarred with the disaster, the space agency's image and popular support were largely undamaged. Webb himself never recovered from the stigma of the fire, and when he left NASA in October 1968, even as Apollo was nearing a successful completion, few mourned his departure.
Recovery from the Apollo 1 capsule fire took more than a year, but in October 1968, the Apollo system was flown by astronauts in Earth orbit during Apollo 7, and it looked like reaching the Moon on President John Kennedy's timetable was again a possibility. So far Apollo had been all promise; now the delivery was about to begin, but the price had been high. The deaths of Grissom, White, and Chaffee had taken a horrible toll on NASA and the Apollo program, but the accident had forced engineers to redesign the spacecraft and to make the Apollo spacecraft much more safe and reliable. Without that redesign, it is almost a certainty that a catastrophic accident during a mission to the Moon would have taken place and the history of Project Apollo might have been strikingly different as a result.
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