On January 27, 1967, a routine launch pad test for the first piloted Apollo mission went horribly wrong. Apollo 1 was supposed to be the first in the series of missions that led to the Moon landing; instead, it was NASA's first big 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 'crash,' and the results of this investigation caused NASA a huge amount of embarrassment, most likely because the incident reports of the Apollo 1 fire stated the causes as having been somewhat preventable.
This devastating moment in space history reminds us that space travel, despite all its incredible benefits, can also be incredibly dangerous – the only positive things to come out of this tragedy were the upped safety precautions put in place to ensure that it would never happens again.
The Three Astronauts Would Have Been On The First Manned Test Flight Of The Apollo Command/Service Module Had Tragedy Not Struck
Virgil 'Gus' Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee were the main crew for the fateful Apollo 1. If they had been successful in their mission, they would have been the first manned mission in the Command/Serve Module – a huge step 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.
Two years after the tragic accident, NASA was able to correct their mistakes and send Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon.
There Were A Number Of Problems With Apollo 1 – And The Astronauts Complained About Them Beforehand
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, the exact causes of the fire were pressurized oxygen (which is extremely flammable) inside the cabin, combustible materials all throughout the spacecraft, and exposed wiring. However, those were not the only issues with the spacecraft.
The bad wiring, especially, was noticeable and concerning, and one of the astronauts even complained. Grissom complained "behind the scenes," but put up with the exposed wiring 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.
This Tragic Mistake Probably Helped The Actual Moon Landing
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, said:
"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: "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."
"It Looks Like The Inside Of A Furnace"
This was the headline of a Washington Post article written three days after the tragic fire. 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 is reported that the three men died within seconds.