The LuLac Edition #3418, January 27th, 2017
As the program progress it was interrupted by a bulletin from ABC. The news was direct and stunning. Three Apollo Astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee had perished in a fire on the launch pad. The names of Grissom and White were etched into the consciousness of Americans who followed the exploits of the space pioneers. Grissom was the second American in space as well as the first commander of the very successful Gemini missions. White was the very first man to walk in space. Chaffee was the rookie.
The news was shocking because up until this day, America had a run of successful manned missions. Oh there were some near misses in space but it was nearly unthinkable that anything could happen on the earth in a controlled testing environment. But it did.
The Apollo 1 mission was supposed to be the first of several crewed flights NASA conducted to prepare for its first moon landing. But the spacecraft never made it off the launchpad, and it was destroyed nearly a month before its planned launch date, Feb. 21, 1967.
On Jan. 27 at 1 p.m. EST (1800 GMT), the three crewmembers entered the Apollo control module for a launch countdown simulation called a "plugs-out" test, which would determine whether the spacecraft was capable of operating on internal power. The Saturn IB rocket that would have launched the crew module into Earth's orbit was not involved in this routine and seemingly safe prelaunch test. Needless to say, the spacecraft flunked that test. Many people at NASA felt that it wasn't ready for such a test to begin with.
The crew spent the entire afternoon sitting inside the space capsule while debugging problems, including a foul odor emanating from the oxygen tank and a faulty communication system. "How are we going to get to the moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?" Grissom shouted from inside the capsule.
Grissom was "very vocal about the shortcomings of the spacecraft," and the crew often complained to higher-ups that the spacecraft was not ready, former NASA astronaut Tom Jones told Space.com. When Grissom realized that raising his voice wasn't making much of a difference, he famously picked a lemon from his citrus tree at home and brought it to Cape Kennedy (now known as Cape Canaveral), where he hung it on the flight simulator as a symbol of his frustration.
As the crew went over their checklist inside the module, suddenly, the spacecraft's interior became engulfed in flames. Heat caused the air pressure inside the spacecraft to rise, making it impossible for the astronauts to open the hatch, which was designed to open inward. After about 30 seconds, the spacecraft ruptured. NASA's ground crew tried desperately to rescue the astronauts, but they died of asphyxiation before rescuers were able to get them out of the spacecraft.
That stray spark appeared to have originated in a bundle of wires. But that was only the beginning of a series of critical mistakes that led to the fire; far more concerning was the abundance of flammable materials inside the spacecraft. Arguably the biggest mistake they made was to fill the air with pure oxygen rather than a mix of oxygen and nitrogen like the air of Earth's atmosphere. Pure oxygen made the spacecraft extremely flammable. Top that off with combustible materials — including Velcro, nylon netting, foam pads and bundles of wiring — and you have "fuel for a 100 percent oxygen environment," NASA historian Roger Launius told Space.com.
Launius said that people at NASA knew about the major design flaws, particularly the unsafe flammable materials inside the spacecraft, for two years before the accident happened. "So why didn't they figure this out beforehand, before somebody died?" Launius said. "That's something that has never been adequately answered in my mind." (Space.com)
An official "Day of Remembrance" will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 31. NASA will hold an observance and wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia by the graves of Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee. Edward White is buried at West Point.
Fifty years ago to the day, the Apollo One tragedy’s lesson is still the same. Reaching for the stars and heavens is not for the faint of heart and spirit. The sacrifices made by the crew paved the way for a less hasty and safe exploration of space.
America 5 decades later remains in their debt.