Sunday, January 27, 2019

Remembering the Crew of Apollo 1

by: 1st Lt. Rommel Anacan

Fifty-two years ago today, on January 27, 1967 our nation lost the crew of Apollo 1 in a flash fire that occurred in their spacecraft during a test on Launch Complex 34 at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station in Florida. 

From L to R Roger Chaffee, Edward White and Virgil "Gus" Grissom
The commander of Apollo 1 was Lt. Col. Virgil "Gus" Grissom, USAF. Grissom was a veteran of two previous spaceflights; Liberty Bell 7 during the Mercury program and Molly Brown (Gemini 3). Grissom had been told privately by "Deke" Slayton (who was in charge of astronaut crew selection) that he would be the first to walk on the moon.

The senior pilot was Lt. Col. Edward White, USAF who may have been best known for being the first American to "walk in space" during the mission of Gemini 4 in 1965.

Apollo 1 would have been the first spaceflight for pilot Lt. Cmdr. Roger Chaffee, USN.

On January 27, 1967 the crew was conducting what was called the "plugs out" test, which was a test of the spacecraft's systems, to ensure that everything was nominal for the mission's scheduled launch date of February 21, 1967. During the test the spacecraft was disconnected from any external sources of power and ran solely on battery power from the spacecraft.

At approximately 6:31pm someone on the crew said, "We've got a fire in the cockpit!" It is believed that a spark originated in a bundle of wiring beneath Grissom's seat. In just a few seconds the spark, fueled by the pure oxygen atmosphere inside the spacecraft, raged through Apollo 1. Under ideal conditions it would have taken 90 seconds to open the three piece hatch; unfortunately the crew was lost within 30 seconds of the first "fire" transmission.

While Grissom, White and Chaffee would never fly their mission nor go to the moon, their mission, in a sense, made the moon landing possible. The investigation uncovered many things that were unsafe in the Apollo spacecraft design (such as the hatch, the use of flammable materials in the cabin and using a pure oxygen atmosphere while the spacecraft was on the ground) in NASA's policies and procedures, and in the general mindset that everyone associated with the program had. In our quest to reach the moon by the end of the decade corners were cut, unnecessary risks were taken and everyone suffered from "go-fever."

The fire forced all involved to pause and reflect and come up with a better way forward...which they ultimately did. On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong famously took a "giant leap for mankind" as he and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. In all twelve men, over six missions, walked on the moon during the Apollo program.

Prior to his death Grissom was asked about the risks of spaceflight and this is what he said, "If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."