On January 27, 1967, a routine launch pad test for the first piloted Apollo mission went horribly wrong. Apollo 1 was set to be the first in the series of missions leading to the moon landing; instead, it was a public tragedy. Three crew members were killed almost instantly when a fire broke out in the control module.
A year-long investigation took place to root out the cause of the fire, and the results of this investigation brought a significant amount of embarrassment to NASA, most likely because incident reports found that the Apollo 1 fire was somewhat preventable.
This devastating moment in space history reminds us that space travel, despite all its incredible potential benefits, can also be incredibly dangerous. One of the only positive things to come out of this tragedy were increased safety precautions put in place to ensure that it would never happen again.
Virgil 'Gus' Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee were the main crew for the Apollo 1 mission. If they had been successful in their mission, they would have been the first manned mission in the Command/Serve Module – a huge step in the path toward a lunar landing. Sadly, their mission never made it off the ground when their spacecraft was engulfed in flames during a routine "plugs out" test and the three astronauts perished.
Devastatingly, Grissom had voiced concerns about the flight to his son, who almost expected his father to not go through with the mission. NASA was able to correct their mistakes and make future Apollo missions safer.
The full investigation after the fire led to the conclusion that there were numerous problems with Apollo 1 before the fire. According to the NASA summary, a combination of combustible materials throughout the craft, exposed wiring, and the pressurized oxygen in the cabin acting as an accelerant caused the fire to break out. However, those were not the only issues with the spacecraft.
The bad wiring in particular was noticeable and concerning before the test, and one of the astronauts had even complained. Gus Grissom kept his complaints behind the scenes, but put up with the risks due to fear of being kicked off the mission. Another major problem with Apollo 1 was communication. Just before the fire erupted, Grissom complained, "How are we going to get to the Moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?" A minute later, he gave the call of alarm that the spacecraft was on fire.
In an effort to remain positive in the face of tragedy, some of those working for NASA at the time of the incident said that the fire, however distressing, was the reason they were able to land on the Moon a short two years later. Chris Kraft, the flight director for Apollo 1, told Ars Technica:
Unless the fire had happened, I think it’s very doubtful that we would have ever landed on the Moon. And I know damned well we wouldn't have gotten there during the 1960s. There were just too many things wrong. Too many management problems, too many people problems, and too many hardware problems across the whole program.
John Tribe, Apollo's spacecraft manager, echoed similar sentiments to Motherboard: "I have a personal feeling that, without their loss in 1967, we might not have gotten to the moon, literally, because what we learned from that accident made a safer program."
The headline of The Washington Post article three days after the tragic fire read, "It Looks Like the Inside of a Furnace." The reporter, who was able to see inside the spacecraft, described it as a "darkened, dingy compartment... Its walls are covered with a slate-gray deposit of smoke and soot; its floor and couch frame are covered with ashes and debris.”
The fire that killed the three astronauts consumed the spacecraft in minutes, and by the time those outside the command module were able to open it – at least 15 minutes after the last radio contact from the astronauts inside – it was much too late. It was reported that the three men suffocated within seconds.