Following the success of the Mercury and Gemini missions in the 1960’s, NASA set about planning a series of manned missions to the Moon that would become known as the Apollo missions, under direction of John F. Kennedy to land a man on the moon by 1970. Apollo 1 was to be the first manned mission and, although it would not travel to the moon itself, it was intended to test important technologies in Earth orbit with Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee on board. Tragically, however, the spacecraft was destroyed in a cabin fire during a launch pad test 50 years ago on 27 January 1967.
Each of the three astronauts had been influential during NASA’s space exploration program in the run-up to Apollo 1. Gus Grissom was the second American in space aboard Liberty Bell 7, the second Project Mercury flight, in 1961. He later became the first American to fly in space twice, piloting the Gemini 3 spacecraft in orbit in 1965.
Edward White was the first American to walk in space during the Gemini 4 spaceflight, also in 1965, when he spent 36 minutes outside the spacecraft. Roger Chaffee was the only one of the three who had not flown in space before. He was chosen in NASA’s third pool of astronauts in 1963 and served as capsule communicator on the ground alongside Grissom for White’s Gemini 4 mission.
All three astronauts contributed to the success of NASA’s manned space activities throughout the 1960s. It was with great tragedy, therefore, that they became the first casualties of the American space programme. On 27 January 1967 Apollo 1 was sitting on the launch pad atop a Saturn 1B rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 34, the precursor to the Saturn V. It was set to perform a “plugs-out” test, during which both the launch vehicle and the spacecraft were not loaded with fuel and all pyrotechnic systems were disabled. The task was merely to prepare Apollo 1 for its launch on 21 February 1967 by running through various system procedures.
Suddenly, at 18:30:54 local time (23:30:54 GMT), an unidentified electrical arc ignited the Command Module’s pure, high-pressure oxygen atmosphere that was being used to replicate conditions in orbit. The fire engulfed the interior capsule and the astronauts’ efforts to open the hatch and escape were in vain. Less than a minute later all three had perished.
The disaster prompted a comprehensive review from NASA, which resulted in a number of design changes to the Apollo spacecraft to significantly improve its safety. The deaths of these three talented astronauts provided an important reminder of the perils of manned space exploration in an age where the desire to send mankind to the stars was second to none. Amongst a number of memorials, geographical landmarks on the Moon and Mars bear the names of the three Apollo 1 astronauts as part of their lasting legacy.