A SHORT GUIDE TO THE TRAGIC NASA'S APOLLO 1 MISSION

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ABOUT THE N.A.S.A. APOLLO 1 MISSION

Apollo 1 is the official name given to the Apollo/Saturn 204 (AS-204) spacecraft, destroyed by fire during a training exercise on January 27, 1967, at Pad 34 (Launch Complex 34 at Cape Canaveral - then known as Cape Kennedy) atop a Saturn IB rocket. Its crew were the astronauts selected for the initial Apollo program mission and all three died in the accident: Command Pilot Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee.

The Crew Remembered

Virgil Grissom (flew on Mercury-Redstone 4 & Gemini 3), Command Pilot
Ed White (flew on Gemini 4), Senior Pilot
Roger B. Chaffee (never flew in space), Pilot

The Backup Crew

April - December 1966

James McDivitt, Command Pilot
David Scott, Senior Pilot
Rusty Schweickart, Pilot
This crew became the crew of Apollo 9.

December 1966 - January 1967

Walter Schirra (also flew on Mercury 8 and Gemini 6), Command Pilot
Donn Eisele, Senior Pilot
Walter Cunningham, Pilot
This crew became the crew of Apollo 7 (The 1st Successful manned mission).

The Mission

AS-204 was to be the first manned flight of a Block I Apollo capsule to Earth orbit, launched on a Saturn 1B. It was to take place sometime in the first quarter of 1967, having already missed a target date of the last quarter of 1966. The purpose of the flight was to test "launch operations, ground tracking and control facilities, and the performance of the Apollo-Saturn". The mission would have lasted up to two weeks. No launch was planned for January 27, 1967; instead, the plan was for a launch simulation that would test whether the Apollo spacecraft would operate nominally on internal power, detached from all cables and umbilicals ("plugs-out"). If the spacecraft had passed this and subsequent tests, it might have been ready to fly February 21, 1967.

If successful, Apollo 1 would have been 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, and an unmanned LM on a second Saturn 1B, both to low earth orbit to be followed by CSM-LM rendezvous and docking. The second would have involved launch of CSM and LM on a Saturn V to high earth orbit. All of these missions were cancelled following the Apollo 1 fire; their mission objectives, in a somewhat different form, were satisfied by Apollo 7, Apollo 8, and Apollo 9.

The Tragic Test

The "plugs-out" test planned for January 27, 1967, was never actually carried out, as the fire took place before connections to the Apollo-Saturn were withdrawn. Grissom, White and Chaffee, fully suited, entered the Apollo capsule at 1:00 PM (1800 GMT) and were strapped into their seats and hooked up to the capsule's systems. There were immediate problems: a strange sour smell in the air in Grissom's suit delayed the launch simulation from 1:00 PM to 2:42 PM. At 2:45 pm, the capsule hatch was sealed and the air already in the capsule began to be replaced by pure oxygen.

Further problems included an alarm about high oxygen flow, and faulty communications between the crew, the control room, the operations and checkout building, and the complex 34 blockhouse. Communications problems put the launch simulation on hold at 5:40 PM. Most countdown functions had been successfully completed by 6:20, but the countdown was still holding at T minus 10 minutes at 6:30 while attempts were made to fix the communication problem.

The Fatal Accident

The charred remains of Apollo 1.

The Apollo 1 Command Module was a "Block I" design, built for spaceflight but never intended for a trip to the moon, as it lacked the necessary docking equipment.

Immediately prior to the accident, the crew members were reclining in their horizontal couches, running through a checklist of things they would do in space while a communication system problem was being fixed. At 6:31 (23:31 GMT) a voice (now believed to be Chaffee's, as his was the only clear channel) was heard over the COM link, "We've got fire in the cockpit." A few seconds later, the transmissions ended with a cry of pain. On the television monitors, Ed White was seen attempting to open the hatch.

The Fire

The fire spread quickly and, within seconds, was out of control. As a result of toxic smoke and malfunctioning gas masks, ground crew needed five minutes to open the hatch and suppress the flames. The fire had melted the astronauts' nylon space suits and the air lines which connected them to the capsule's life support systems. Grissom's and White's suits were found to have fused together. It was evident from how the bodies lay that they had tried to get out, but they never had a chance. Ed White, who was supposed to open the hatch, was partway out of his harness and had apparently made an effort to escape. The procedure would have had Grissom lower White's headrest, and White proceed to unlatch over 12 bolts to release the hatch. Indeed, even if he were to accomplish that feat, the internal pressure had risen so high that the inward-opening hatch could not have been opened. Chaffee's job was to begin shutting down the spacecraft and maintain communications with ground control. He was found dead still strapped into his right hand seat. Only 17 seconds from the first call of "Fire!", all three were dead.

According to the Report of the Apollo 204 Review Board — Appendix D Panel 11, (link provided below), Grissom suffered third degree burns on 36% of his body (1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns covered 60% of his body) and his spacesuit was 70% destroyed. White suffered third degree burns on 40% of his body (1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns covered 48% of his body) and his spacesuit was 25% destroyed. Chaffee suffered third degree burns on 23% of his body (1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns covered 29% of his body) and his spacesuit was 15% destroyed. However, it was later confirmed that the crew had actually died of smoke inhalation rather than burns.

The company that produced the command module, North American Aviation, had originally suggested that the hatch open outward and be able to open with explosive bolts in case of emergency. They had also suggested that the atmosphere be an oxygen/nitrogen mixture, like on the earth's surface. NASA didn't agree, arguing that the hatch could be accidentally opened (this is what caused Liberty Bell 7 — ironically, piloted by Grissom — to sink into the ocean during splashdown recovery operations; Grissom himself argued that the hatch should be stronger, more secure, and harder to open), and that if too much nitrogen were released into the atmosphere, the astronauts would pass out and then die. They also argued that since a pure oxygen atmosphere was used safely in Mercury and Gemini, it should be safe to use for Apollo. Furthermore, such a design saved weight.

The Cause Of The Fire

The fire is believed to have been caused by a spark somewhere in the capsule's 50 km (31 miles) of wiring. Due to the pure oxygen inside the capsule (which was at a pressure of 15 psi or 100 kPa), the fire was quickly out of control. The Apollo 204 Review Board determined that a silver-plated copper wire running through an environmental control unit near the command module pilot's couch had become stripped of its teflon insulation and abraded by repeated opening and closing of an associated access door. This weak point in the wiring also happened to pass near a junction in an ethylene glycol/water cooling line, which had developed a leak. The electrolysis of ethylene glycol solution with the anode made of silver resulted in a violent exothermic reaction that ignited the ethylene glycol mixture, which in turn was able to burn in the atmosphere of pure pressurized oxygen. A similar March 1961 incident had previously claimed the life of Soviet cosmonaut trainee Valentin Bondarenko when a fire started in the pure oxygen atmosphere in the isolation chamber he had been occupying, a calamity the USSR had, for years, concealed from the public. The NASA investigation found that a bar of aluminum can burn like wood in a pure oxygen atmosphere. It also found substandard wiring in the craft and a missing socket wrench that was ruled out as the fire's cause. Many items on board were flammable, and flammable Velcro had been applied to the walls of the craft to secure items in weightless conditions.

After the fire, Apollo was grounded pending a redesign, with the following results:

The atmosphere would not be pressurized to 2 lbf/in² (14 kPa) above atmospheric pressure. It would consist of 60% oxygen and 40% nitrogen at sea-level pressure at launch, lowering to 5 kPa of pressure during launch, and gradually changing over to 100% oxygen during the first 24 hours of the trans-lunar coast.
The hatch would open outward, and be operable in less than ten seconds.
Flammable materials in the cabin were replaced with self-extinguishing materials.
Plumbing and wiring were covered with protective insulation.
1,407 wiring problems were corrected.
Nylon suits (seen in the crew portrait above) were replaced with suits made of Beta cloth, a coated glass fabric.
The wiring improvements proved crucial two years later during the Apollo 13 flight; condensation that accumulated for four days during shut-down of the command module did not cause any short-outs when powered up just prior to re-entry.

The Naming Of Apollo 1

When North American Aviation shipped Spacecraft CM-012 to Kennedy Space Center, it bore a banner proclaiming it "Apollo One" and Grissom's crew had received approval for an "Apollo 1" patch in June 1966, but NASA was planning to call that mission "AS-204." After the fire, the astronauts' widows asked that "Apollo 1" be reserved for the flight their husbands would never make. For a time, mission planners called the next scheduled launch "Apollo 2." Suggestions were made that the flights should be called "Apollo 1" (AS-204), "Apollo 1A" (AS-201), "Apollo 2" (AS-202), and "Apollo 3" (AS-203). Finally, the NASA Project Designation Committee approved "Apollo 4" for the first (unmanned) Apollo-Saturn V mission (AS-501), but declared that there would be no retroactive renaming of AS-201, -202, or -203. The Apollo 1 (AS-204) Saturn IB rocket was taken down from Launch Complex 34 and later reassembled at Launch Complex 37B. It was used to launch the Apollo 5 LM-1 into earth orbit for the first Lunar Module test mission.

The Mission Insignia

The center part of the insignia shows 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 goal of the program. A yellow border carries the mission and astronaut names, with another border including stars and stripes, trimmed in gold.

The Astronauts Memorial

Apollo 1 plaque that is attached to Launch Complex 34


 
Launch Complex 34, showing plaque on right rear post

While Launch Complex 34 has been essentially dismantled, the concrete and steel-reinforced launch platform remains at the site.

The launch platform is located at 28.52182° N 80.561258° W.

The platform bears two plaques for the 3 men who died.

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:

 
Photo of second Apollo 1 plaque that is attached to Launch Complex 34

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

This plaque was featured in the film Armageddon.

In addition to both, a college classmate of one of the astronauts fashioned three granite benches, one for each member of the crew. The benches were installed in January 2005.

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 that are on Cape Canaveral.

Three stars, Navi, Dnoces and Regor were named in honor of the crew. The names are "Ivan", "Second" and "Roger" spelled backwards. Ivan was Grissom's middle name and White was Edward H. White the Second. The crew used the stars to calibrate their equipment and, as a practical joke, recorded the names in official NASA documentation. The names eventually stuck as a posthumous honor.

In addition, craters on the Moon and hills on Mars are named after the three astronauts.

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. In the film Apollo 13, the tragedy was discussed between father Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) and his young son Jeff (Miko Hughes). When hearing that there was a problem with Apollo 13, Jeff asks warily, "Was it the door?"

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

Three public schools in Huntsville, Alabama, home of George C. Marshall Space Flight Center and the United States Space and Rocket Center, are named for the Apollo 1 crew. They are Virgil Grissom High School, Ed White Middle School, and Roger Chaffee Elementary School.

In addition, on May 5, 2007, the Virgil Grissom High School Symphonic I Band premiered a piece entitled "Apollo" with Lynn Klock of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst on the soprano saxophone. The piece was composed by Brian Balmages in a joint commission by the Grissom High Band and Lynn Klock, and is dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Apollo 1 disaster, specifically Virgil I. Grissom.

Three man-made oil drilling islands in the harbor off Long Beach, California are named Grissom, White and Chaffee in honor of the Apollo 1 crew. A fourth island, Freeman, is named for Theodore Freeman, an Air Force test pilot who was chosen as an astronaut in 1963 but was killed while piloting a T-38 jet when it crashed at Ellington AFB.

A road that formerly ran through Kent County International Airport (KGRR) in Grand Rapids, MI, Chaffee's hometown, was named Roger B. Chaffee Memorial Boulevard after the airport was moved further from the city limits.

The Capsule Afterward

After the accident, the capsule was removed and taken to Kennedy Space Center to be studied for any information that could be obtained that could prevent a reoccurrence of the tragedy. It was then moved to the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where it was placed into a secured storage warehouse. The capsule has never been on public display. On February 17, 2007, the capsule was moved from its original holding location and placed into a newer environmentally-controlled warehouse located approximately 100 feet from its previous location.

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