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).
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 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