Apollo 1

Apollo 1 is the official name that was later given to the never-flown Apollo/Saturn 204 (AS-204) mission. Its command module (CM-012) was destroyed by fire during a test and training exercise on January 27 1967 at Pad 34 (Launch Complex 34, Cape Canaveral, then known as Cape Kennedy) atop a Saturn IB rocket. The crew aboard were the astronauts selected for the first manned Apollo program mission: Command Pilot Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee. All three died in the fire.

Although the ignition source of the fire was never conclusively identified, the astronauts' deaths were attributed to a wide range of lethal design hazards in the early Apollo command module. Among these were the use of a high-pressure 100 percent-oxygen atmosphere for the test, wiring and plumbing flaws, inflammable materials in the cockpit (such as Velcro), an inward-opening hatch that would not open in this kind of an emergency and the flight suits worn by the astronauts.


Backup crews

This crew flew on Apollo 9.

This crew flew on Apollo 7.

Mission background

AS-204 was to be the first manned flight of a command and service module (CSM) to Earth orbit, launched on a Saturn 1B. CM-012, the Apollo 1 command module, was a Block I design built for spaceflight but never intended for a trip to the moon since it lacked the needed docking equipment.

Apollo 1 was meant to be followed by two more Apollo flights in the summer and late autumn of 1967. The first of these would have launched a Block II Apollo CSM on a Saturn 1B along with an unmanned LM on a second Saturn 1B, both ascending to low earth orbit for a CSM-LM rendezvous and docking. The second flight would have launched the CSM and LM together on a Saturn V to high earth orbit. Both of these missions were canceled following the Apollo 1 fire (their mission objectives were later carried out in somewhat different ways by Apollo 7, Apollo 8 and Apollo 9).

The AS-204 mission was scheduled for the first quarter of 1967, having already missed a target date for the last quarter of 1966. The flight was to test "launch operations, ground tracking and control facilities and the performance of the Apollo-Saturn launch assembly" and would have lasted up to two weeks, depending on how the spacecraft performed.[1] Grissom resolved to keep AS-204 in orbit for a full 14 days if there was any way to do so.

Command module design worries

The Apollo 1 astronauts with a model of the command module. The crew expressed serious concerns about fire hazards and other problems.

The Apollo command module was much bigger and far more complex than any previously implemented spacecraft design. The CM was built by North American Aviation, which had originally suggested the hatch open outward and carry explosive bolts in case of emergency. NASA didn't agree, arguing the hatch could be accidentally opened (what led to Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft sinking during splashdown recovery operations). Before the fire, astronauts successfully lobbied for an outward-opening hatch on future command modules, but NASA subsequently claimed the astronauts were thinking about ease of exit and entry for spacewalks (along with getting out of the CM after splashdown) rather than safety.[2]

North American Aviation also suggested the cabin atmosphere be an oxygen/nitrogen mixture as on the earth's surface. NASA objected, citing heightened risks such as catastrophic decompression sickness and mismanagement of nitrogen levels, which could cause the astronauts to pass out and die. NASA officials asserted a pure oxygen atmosphere had been used without incident in the Mercury and Gemini programs so it would be safe for use on Apollo. Also, a pure oxygen design saved weight.

CM-012 was delivered to NASA with dozens of acknowledged but unresolved flaws. The crew expressed serious concerns about fire hazards and other problems (Grissom even famously took a lemon from a tree by his house, telling his wife Betty, "I'm going to hang it on that spacecraft").[3] The January 27, 1967 launch simulation, officially considered not hazardous, was a "plugs-out" test to determine whether the Apollo spacecraft would operate nominally on internal power while detached from all cables and umbilicals. There was hope that if the spacecraft passed this and subsequent tests it would be ready to fly on February 21, 1967.[4]


Plugs-out test

At 1:00 PM (1800 GMT) on January 27th Grissom, White and Chaffee entered the command module fully suited, were strapped into their seats and hooked up to the spacecraft's systems in preparation for the plugs-out test. There were immediate problems. A sour "buttermilk" smell in the air circulating through Grissom's suit delayed the launch simulation until 2:42 PM. Three minutes later the hatch was sealed and high-pressure pure oxygen began replacing the air in the cabin.

Further problems included episodes of high oxygen flow apparently linked to movements by the astronauts in their flightsuits. There were also faulty communications between the crew, the control room, the operations and checkout building and the complex 34 blockhouse. "How are we going to get to the moon if we can't talk between three buildings?" Grissom complained in frustration over the communication loop. This put the launch simulation on hold again at 5:40. Most countdown functions had been successfully completed by 6:20 but the countdown was still holding at T minus 10 minutes at 6:30 with all cables and umbilicals still attached to the command module while attempts were made to fix the communication problem.


The charred remains of Apollo 1.

The crew members were reclining in their horizontal couches, running through a checklist when a voltage transient was recorded at 6:30:54 (23:30:54 GMT). Ten seconds later (at 6:31:04) Chaffee said, "Hey..." Scuffling sounds followed for three seconds before Grissom shouted "Fire!" Chaffee then reported, "We've got a fire in the cockpit," and White said "Fire in the cockpit!"

After nearly ten seconds of frenetic movement noises Chaffee yelled, "We've got a bad fire! Let's get out! We're burning up! We're on fire! Get us out of here!"[5][6] Some witnesses said they saw Ed White on the television monitors, reaching for the hatch release handle as flames in the cabin spread from left to right and licked the window. Only 17 seconds after the first indication by crew of any fire, the transmission ended abruptly at 6:31:21 with a scream of pain as the cabin ruptured after rapidly expanding gases from the fire overpressurized the CM to 29 psi.[7]

Toxic smoke from the leaking command module, along with malfunctioning gas masks, slowed down the ground crew trying to rescue the astronauts. There were fears the whole launch complex might become engulfed by flames. It took five minutes to open the hatch, a layered array of three hatches with many ratchets. By this time the fire in the command module had gone out. Although the cabin lights had remained lit the ground crew was at first unable to find the astronauts. As the smoke cleared they found the bodies but were not able to remove them. The fire had melted the astronauts' nylon space suits along with some of the air lines connecting them to the cabin's life-support systems. Grissom's body was found lying mostly on the deck. His and White's suits were fused together. The body of Ed White (who mission protocol had tasked with opening the hatch) was lying back in his center couch. White would not have been able to open the inward-opening hatch because internal pressure had risen too high. Chaffee's job was to shut down the spacecraft systems and maintain communications with ground control. His body was still strapped into the right-hand seat.


According to the Apollo 204 Review Board, Grissom suffered severe third degree burns on over a third of his body and his spacesuit was mostly destroyed. White suffered third degree burns on almost half of his body and a quarter of his spacesuit had melted away. Chaffee suffered third degree burns over almost a quarter of his body and a small portion of his spacesuit was damaged. It was later confirmed the crew had died of smoke inhalation with burns contributing. It is unknown how badly the astronauts were burned before they lost consciousness.[8]

To its dismay, the review board found the documentation for CM-012 so lacking that they were at times unable to determine what had been installed in the spacecraft or what was in it at the time of the accident.

NASA maintained that the astronauts had died almost instantly in the fire. Only when Betty Grissom, widow of Gus Grissom, brought suit against NASA and others was it revealed that the astronauts had lived far longer than claimed.[9]


Since the CM was designed to endure outward pressure in the vacuum of space, the plugs-out test had been run with the cabin pressure at over 16 psi, almost 2 psi above the ambient sea level pressure at Launch Complex 34 and near the upper limits of measuring devices in the spacecraft. This represented over 5 times the oxygen density carried within the Mercury and Gemini capsules while in spaceflight (which was only 3 psi but equal to the partial pressure of oxygen at sea level and thus very breathable). Following a worldwide survey of artificial oxygen-rich environments, it was found that rarely if ever had a 100% oxygen environment been created and maintained at such a high pressure, in which a bar of aluminum can burn like wood. The investigation also found much substandard wiring and plumbing in the craft along with a misplaced socket wrench (which was ruled out as a cause). Hence, the fire was at first believed to have been caused by a spark somewhere in the over 25 km (15 miles) of wiring threaded throughout the command module.

The review board noted a silver-plated copper wire running through an environmental control unit near the command module pilot's couch which had become stripped of its Teflon insulation and abraded by repeated opening and closing of a small access door. This weak point in the wiring also ran near a junction in an ethylene glycol/water cooling line which was known to be prone to leaks. The electrolysis of ethylene glycol solution with the silver anode was a notable hazard which could cause a violent exothermic reaction, igniting the ethylene glycol mixture in the CM's corrosive test atmosphere of pure, high-pressure oxygen.[10][11]

The panel cited how the NASA crew systems department had installed 34 square feet (3.2 m2) of fuzzy Velcro throughout the spacecraft, almost like carpeting. This velcro was found to be explosive in a high-pressure 100% oxygen environment. Up to 70 pounds of other non-metallic flammable materials had crept into the design.

In 1968 a team of MIT physicists went to Cape Kennedy and performed a static discharge test in the Apollo-8 spacecraft while it was being prepared for launch. With an electroscope, they measured the approximate energy of static discharges caused by a test crew dressed in nylon flight pressure suits and reclining on the nylon flight seats. The MIT investigators found sufficient energy for ignition discharged repeatedly when crewmembers shifted in their seats and then touched the spacecraft's aluminum panels.

The ignition source for the fire was never determined.[8]

Command module redesign

After the fire the Apollo project was grounded. In hindsight the command module was understood to be extremely hazardous and in some instances, carelessly assembled. Many design changes were made, among them:

Much more thorough protocols were implemented for documenting spacecraft construction and maintenance. By all accounts the design changes were successful and worth the subsequent delay of almost 21 months before the project's successful first launch and completion of a manned mission, Apollo 7. Three years later when Apollo 13 executed an emergency shutdown of the command module after a crippling and life-threatening explosion in the service module while crossing trans-lunar space, water condensation gathered for four days but did not cause any short-outs or fatal sparks when the spacecraft was powered up again minutes before reentry. Moreover, documentation on the Apollo 13 spacecraft was so complete, investigators were able to reconstruct the cause of the explosion from telemetry, construction, maintenance and photographic records without ever examining the service module itself.

1961 Soviet oxygen fire

In March 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko was killed when a fire started in the pure-oxygen atmosphere of an isolation chamber but the USSR concealed this tragedy for over 20 years, which subsequently caused some speculation as to whether or not the Apollo 1 disaster might have been averted had NASA been aware of the incident.[12] However, the design hazards of a 100% oxygen environment had been well described by 1967 and many deaths from flash fires in pure oxygen at or near sea-level pressure had been publicly reported during the 1950s and 60s. A 1966 editorial in the journal Space/Aeronautics asserted "The odds are that the first spaceflight casualty due to environmental exposure will occur not in space, but on the ground", and further noted that safety protocols for the Apollo project were thoroughly lacking.[2]

Mission insignia

The Apollo 1 insignia (see this article's infobox for an image of it) has a center showing a command service module flying over the southeastern United States with Florida (the launch point) prominent. The moon is seen in the distance, symbolic of the eventual program goal. A yellow border carries the mission and astronaut names with another border set with stars and stripes, trimmed in gold.


Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee were buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Ed White was buried at the cemetery of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Their names are also enshrined on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Merritt Island, Florida.

An Apollo 1 mission patch was left on the moon's surface during the first manned lunar landing by Apollo 11.

Launch Complex 34

Launch platform at LC-34 with Apollo 1 dedication plaque visible on right rear post
Dedication plaque attached to launch platform at LC-34
Memorial plaque attached to launch platform at LC-34

Launch Complex 34 was subsequently used only for the launch of Apollo 7 and later dismantled but the launch platform remains at the site (28°31′19″N 80°33′41″W / 28.52182°N 80.561258°W / 28.52182; -80.561258) along with a few other concrete and steel-reinforced structures. The launch platform bears two plaques noting the tragedy.

One reads: LAUNCH COMPLEX 34, Friday, 27 January 1967, 1831 Hours. Dedicated to the living memory of the crew of the Apollo 1: USAF. Lt. Colonel Virgil I. Grissom, USAF. Lt. Colonel Edward H. White, II, U.S.N. Lt. Commander Roger B. Chaffee. They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind's final frontier. Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived.

The other reads: In memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice so others could reach for the stars; Ad astra per aspera (a rough road leads to the stars); God speed to the crew of Apollo 1

In January 2005 three granite benches built by a college classmate of one of the astronauts, one for each member of the crew, were installed at the site.

Each year the families of the Apollo 1 crew are invited to the site for a memorial, and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center offers a visit to the site for those who choose to take a special tour to the older launch sites on Cape Canaveral.

Stars, landmarks on the Moon and Mars

Naming of Apollo 1

When North American Aviation shipped spacecraft CM-012 to Kennedy Space Center it bore a banner proclaiming it as Apollo One. Grissom's crew had received approval for an Apollo 1 patch in June 1966 but NASA was planning to call the mission "AS-204." After the fire, the astronauts' widows asked that Apollo 1 be reserved for the flight their husbands never made.

Apollo 1's (AS-204) Saturn IB rocket was taken down from Launch Complex 34, later reassembled at Launch Complex 37B and used to launch the Apollo 5 LM-1 into earth orbit for the first Lunar Module test mission.

Effect on early Apollo mission names

For a time mission planners called the next scheduled launch Apollo 2. There were also suggestions the first Apollo CSM flights be named wholly out of chronological sequence as Apollo 1 (AS-204), Apollo 1A (AS-201), Apollo 2 (AS-202) and Apollo 3 (AS-203) but the NASA project designation committee decided on Apollo 4 for the first (unmanned) Apollo-Saturn V mission (AS-501), with no retroactive renaming of earlier missions. Hence, AS-203 is now sometimes informally (and chronologically) referred to as Apollo 2 and likewise, AS-202 as Apollo 3.

Civic and other memorials

The names of the three astronauts on the Space Mirror at KSC.

Remains of CM-012

The Apollo 1 command module has never been on public display. After the accident the burned-out spacecraft was removed and taken to Kennedy Space Center to be studied for any information that might prevent a recurrence of the tragedy. It was then moved to the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia and placed in a secured storage warehouse. On February 17, 2007 the wreckage of CM-012 was moved approximately 100 feet (30 m) to a newer, environmentally-controlled warehouse.[23] Only a few weeks earlier Gus Grissom's brother Lowell publicly suggested CM-012 be permanently entombed in the concrete remains of Launch Complex 34.[6]


An episode of the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon told the story of the Apollo 1 disaster and its aftermath. It starred Mark Rolston as Gus Grissom, Chris Isaak as Ed White and Ben Marley as Roger Chaffee. The accident was also depicted in a scene in the film Apollo 13.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Benson 1978: Chapter 18-1 - The Fire That Seared The Spaceport, "Introduction"
  2. ^ a b Benson 1978: Chapter 18-2 - The Fire That Seared The Spaceport, "Predictions of Trouble"
  3. ^ Mary C., White. "Gus Grissom". Detailed Biographies of Apollo I Crew. NASA History. Retrieved 2008-07-29.
  4. ^ "Apollo 1: The Fire 27 January 1967". NASA Special Publication-4029.
  5. ^ "Apollo 1 Fire Timeline". NASA Special Publication-4029. NASA History.
  6. ^ a b "Apollo 1 astronauts honored at Cape". Palm Beach Post. 2007-01-27. Retrieved 2007-11-14.
  7. ^ Seamans, Robert C., Jr. (1967-04-05). "Memorandum". Report of Apollo 204 Review Board. NASA History Office. ((cite book)): Check date values in: |date= (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ a b Seamans, Robert C., Jr. (1967-04-05). "Findings, Determinations And Recommendations". Report of Apollo 204 Review Board. NASA History Office. Retrieved 2007-10-07. ((cite book)): Check date values in: |date= (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ See Dennis E. Powell, "Obviously, A Major Malfunction" Miami [Fla.] Herald Sunday magazine, November 13, 1988.
  10. ^ "NASA history SP-4009".
  11. ^ In 1967 a vice president of North American Aviation, John McCarthy, speculated that Grissom had accidentally "scuffed the insulation of a wire" whilst moving about the spacecraft but his remarks were ignored by the review board and strongly rejected by a congressional committee. Frank Borman, who had been the first astronaut to go inside the burned spacecraft, testified, "We found no evidence to support the thesis that Gus, or any of the crew members kicked the wire that ignited the flammables." A 1978 history of the accident written internally by NASA said at the time, "the spark that led to the fire still has wide currency at Kennedy Space Center. Men differ, however, on the cause of the scuff." (Benson 1978: Chapter 18-6 - The Fire That Seared The Spaceport, "The Review Board", retrieved 12 May 2008) Soon after making his comment McCarthy had said, "I only brought it up as a hypothesis." ("Blind Spot". Time Magazine. 1967-04-21. Retrieved 2008-05-21. ((cite news)): Check date values in: |date= (help))
  12. ^ Charles, John (2007-01-29). "Could the CIA have prevented the Apollo 1 fire?". The Space Review. Retrieved 2008-01-05.
  13. ^ "Post-landing Activities". Apollo 15 Lunar Surface Journal. 2006-01-15. Retrieved 2007-07-26. Section 105:11:33.
  14. ^ "Virgil I. Grissom High School". Huntsville City Schools. Retrieved 2008-06-24.
  15. ^ "Ed White MIddle School". Huntsville City Schools. Retrieved 2008-06-24.
  16. ^ "Roger B. Chaffee Elementary School". Huntsville City Schools. Retrieved 2008-06-24.
  17. ^ "Edward H. White Middle School". North East Independent School District - San Antonio, Texas. Retrieved 2008-06-24.
  18. ^ "Edward H. White High School". Duval County Public Schools. Retrieved 2008-06-24.
  19. ^ "Edward H. White Elementary". Duval County Public Schools. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
  20. ^ "Ed White Memorial Youth Center". Ed White Memorial Youth Center. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
  21. ^ "Grissom Elementary School". Tulsa Public Schools. Retrieved 2008-06-24.
  22. ^ "Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium". Grand Rapids Public Museum. Retrieved 2008-06-24.
  23. ^ Weil, Martin (2007-02-18). "Ill-Fated Apollo 1 Capsule Moved to New Site". The Washington Post. p. C5.