This undated photo made available by NASA shows the Apollo 1 crew, from left, Edward H. White II, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and Roger B. Chaffee. On Jan. 27, 1967, a flash fire erupted inside their capsule during a countdown rehearsal, with the astronauts atop the rocket.
The entire Apollo program and with it the entire space program almost died with them. People said it was too dangerous, too impossible.
My mother told me that she watched the Charles Lindbergh ticker tape parade breathlessly. It was like nothing anyone had ever experienced. Perhaps that’s how the few eyewitnesses felt during the first powered flight on December 17, 1903 by Orville Wright, twenty-four years before Lindbergh’s amazing solo flight across the Atlantic to an enormous crowd in Paris. People thought Lindbergh had died but then a famed spotted him over Ireland. By the time he landed in Paris, people had come from all over to greet him.
Like everyone at the parade in New York City, she could hardly contain her excitement.
It must have been similar to my experience more than forty years later. I was able to watch the control tower and listen to the words of the astronauts during the moon landing on a small black and white television set. A
t times, the set would go blank, scaring viewers, but then it was back and everything was fine. I was a child but stayed up throughout the night. It was a remarkable accomplishment in only little over forty years from the first solo flight and only sixty-three years after the first powered flight.
The metaphor used to explain the impossible when I was a child in the fifties was, “Sure, and we’ll get to the moon before you get that done” or “right, and we’ll have a man on the moon too”. In less than ten years after JFK declared we would have a man on the moon in ten years, his dream was realized.
These astronauts, pioneers of space, risked their lives and some sacrificed their lives. There were three tragedies in our space program, all fell within days though years apart, Apollo 1 on Jan. 27, Challenger on Jan. 28 and Columbia on Feb. 1.
The first tragedy was fifty years ago.
Today we honor those who died during a countdown rehearsal at the launch inside their burning spacecraft, filling with poisonous gases in less than five seconds, on January 27, 1967.
The mission was to be the first crewed flight of Apollo, and was scheduled to launch Feb. 21, 1967. NASA was rushing to meet President Kennedy’s 1961 goal to have men on the moon by the end of the decade.
President Kennedy was to not live to see his challenge met nor were the men of Apollo I.
The goal of the dress rehearsal that day fifty years ago was to check out the command module, NASA’s first three-man spacecraft that would take astronauts to the moon.
The crew was rehearsing the real launch, which was about a month away. They were suited up and in the capsule running through checklists and testing equipment.
Something suddenly sparked in the oxygen-rich environment. Within seconds, the capsule filled with flames, smoke and toxic gases. It was less than five seconds. It was almost instant death.
NASA Engineer John Tribe was working in the control room when it happened. “It was incomprehensible to us how on earth we could have a fire in the cockpit,” Tribe says and NPR reported. “We had imagined the worst, we’d hoped for the best, it was not to be,
“Tribe said. “We’d lost three of our team.”
The accident halted the Apollo program as NASA scrambled to figure out what went wrong. Reporter George Alexander was one of only three journalists allowed to visit the capsule after the fire.
“What burned? I’d have to say just about everything that was in there except for these few odd bits and pieces,” Alexander said. “Like a page which had only its edges slightly browned. This bit of parachute harness. But everything else burned.”
The capsule was pressurized with 100 percent oxygen. In that environment, something not considered a fire hazard was extremely combustible. The hatch of the capsule opened inward, making it difficult for the crew to open it.
There were serious discussions of dropping the program, but it was decided it would continue.
That tragedy launched an investigation and hundreds of significant changes to the capsule and safety procedures. The new capsules would use a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen instead of our oxygen and the new hatch could be opened in five seconds.
Only 21 months later, NASA sent humans back into space aboard Apollo 7. And less than a year after that, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Apollo 11 on the moon.
Astronaut Michael Collins was also on that mission. He says if the fire on Apollo 1 hadn’t happened, it’s likely a similar accident would have occurred in space — and that could have led to the program’s cancellation.
“Without it, very likely, we would have not landed on the moon as the president had wished by the end of the decade,” Collins says.
For 50 years, NASA kept the Apollo 1 command module locked up — until now. Beginning Friday, the hatch from the burned capsule will be put on public display at the Kennedy Space Center as a tribute to the sacrifices of Grissom, White and Chaffee.
The families of the three men say it’s about time and are pleased with the display.