On this day in 1967 – The Tragic Story of Apollo 1

“We had known from the beginning that there would be setbacks, and perhaps even tragedy, involved in the space program. But no amount of planning could have adequately prepared us for the horror of that moment.” US President Lyndon B Johnson

By 1967, NASA were seven years into preparations to deliver on the grand (many said impossible) goal of sending men to the Moon and returning them safely to earth, by the end of the decade. Time was ticking by rapidly, less than three years remained to meet the deadline and there was also the huge threat that the USSR, who had beaten the Americans to so many “Firsts” in the space race up to that point, would get there before them and essentially win the space race.

Traveling to space, never mind the moon, remains to this day an incredibly complex, expensive and especially dangerous enterprise. Up to that point in 1967, NASA had delivered two programs that had designed and built two rockets that took the American’s into space, Project Mercury and Project Gemini. These programs were critical to the overall plan. However, to actually get to the moon, a rocket on a scale never before conceived or built by the human race was required. This rocket was called the Saturn V (five), commonly known as “The Mighty Saturn V”.

At 111 meters tall and weighing 2.8 million kilograms at lift off, this machine was absolutely enormous, like SERIOUSLY MASSIVE!. And it had to be, essentially because to firstly get out of Earth’s orbit (i.e. to break away from the force of gravity that holds everything down here on Earth), and still have enough speed left to travel 250,000 miles to the Moon, the rocket had to propel the upper Command Module that contained the crew and all their equipment at faster speeds than had ever being achieved before.

What’s also astonishing is that all this was happening only SIXTY THREE years after the Wright Brother’s got the first powered airplane in history to overcome earth’s gravity and “fly” a few feet off the ground.

Yet at NASA, and specifically with the Saturn V Rocket, all was not well. There was an intense sense of urgency to get the first manned flight of the Saturn V rocket flown as quickly as possible, so that the program could move forward towards the ultimate goal of sending the rocket to the moon by the end of the decade.

This first manned mission was called “Apollo 1” and was crewed by Gus Grissom (Commander, and veteran Astronaut ), Ed White (Senior Pilot) & Roger Chaffee (Pilot).

It was about one month in advance of the planned launch that a very important test was carried out by all involved. Essentially it involved doing absolutely everything as they would do on launch day, without actually putting fuel in the rocket and launching. Every other detail however, was to be run through. A full dress-rehearsal if you will.

With the three astronauts strapped into their seats in the command module, fully dressed in their space suits breathing the oxygen generated within the module by the on-board systems, a spark generated in one of the electrical systems. The problem was that the capsule they were in was already filled with pure oxygen. This meant that the spark generated a much bigger fire than it would normally have done.

This wasn’t life threatening for the astronauts in itself, however one more factor proved to be hugely significant.

Due to the air pressure within the cabin, the exit door that was the only way into and out of the capsule for the crew, was unable to be opened as it only opened inwards and not outwards. The pressure was so strong within the capsule that the astronauts were unable to open the door.

In another twist of extreme irony, the reason the door only opened inwards was because of an incident on an earlier Project Mercury mission that was flown by one of the very crew on board Apollo 1, the Commander Gus Grissom, where the door was blown off upon the force of impact by the ocean when he handed, with the capsule sinking to the bottom of the ocean. NASA made the door on Apollo 1 only open inwards to prevent such an issue reoccurring.

Except now the crew of Apollo 1 needed to get out of the capsule or be burned alive in their own spacecraft, not in space, but on a dress-rehearsal test on the ground in Florida.

Commander Grissom & Ed White managed to remove their seat restraints and attempt to open the hatch door, with Roger Chaffee following emergency procedure protocol and staying in his seat to communicate with the ground.

Due to the pressure within the cabin, the fire, which was being fed by pure oxygen (think throwing petrol on a fire and you’ll get the idea…) raged with the outer walls of the command module cracking due to the pressure inside. The fire broke out of the command module itself and at one point the controllers on the ground thought that the entire launch pad would be destroyed.

It took the controllers five minutes to put out the fire and get the hatch open to get to the crew. By that stage, all three of them had met an extremely terrifying death inside the cabin. It took controllers ninety minutes to remove their bodies, such was the condition that they were in. In essence, they three astronauts didn’t have a chance.

The resulting investigation and final report was very extensive but also delivered very quickly, in that the official conclusions were released just over two months after the incident. Remember, NASA was still going to the moon, there was no time to waste, even considering an incident such as this.

The report concluded that the astronauts died of cardiac arrest caused by high concentrations of carbon monoxide within the cabin. It was concluded that the massive burning they received would have come after they died, which does sound like a blessing of sorts for them as the alternative would be even more horrific to contemplate. Yet it remains a horrific death by any standards.

It would be the end of the following year, October 1968, that the next manned Apollo Mission would fly, named Apollo 7. This was generally agreed to be a flawless mission, thanks in no small part to the lessons learned on Apollo 1.

The next mission, Apollo 8, went all the way to the moon but didn’t land, which was remarkable as this was only the third manned mission of the Apollo program, leaving aside the failed Apollo 1.

Three missions later, in April 1970 on Apollo 13, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on another planet. An unprecedented feat of human endeavor, and to this day, the United States is the only entity to ever launch a human outside of Earth’s orbit. (The International Space Station is within Earth’s orbit…)

The Saturn V rocket itself still holds almost mythical status within the Space industry, and one of the reasons for this is that nobody has ever come close to building a rocket as big or as powerful since. Even the Space Shuttle Rockets look particularly small by comparison. However, the new Space Launch System (SLS) being developed by NASA to hopefully take humans to Mars, will finally deliver a rocket that is a partially bigger and more powerful than the Saturn V. However, it’s still at design stage, and it’s likely that it will have taken 60-70 year for humans to repeat the scale of the power generated by the Saturn Rockets.

NASA fulfilled the objective given to it by President John F. Kennedy of landing a man on the moon before the decade was out and bringing him safely back to earth. It can be said however, that without the ultimate sacrifice made by Gus Grissom, Ed White & Roger Chaffee, NASA may not have achieved this success in the time-frame involved or maybe even not at all.