‘Fire in the cockpit.’ A 1967 tragedy taught NASA how to put a man on the moon

National Air and Space Museum

On his last visit home to Texas on Jan. 22, 1967, astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom grabbed a lemon off a tree in his backyard. His wife asked what he planned to do with it.

“I’m going to hang it on that spacecraft,” Grissom told her, referring to the Apollo 1 command module then undergoing testing in Florida, Space.com reported.

Following the success of the Mercury and Gemini missions, NASA was preparing for the Apollo missions to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 vow to put a man on the moon.

But Grissom, a veteran of the Mercury missions that first put U.S. astronauts into orbit, and some of his fellow astronauts had reservations about the command module, Space.com said.

Nevertheless, on Jan. 27, Grissom, climbed into the capsule for a test with Gemini veteran Ed White, who was the first U.S. astronaut to make a spacewalk, and first-time astronaut Roger Chaffee, who expected the moon mission to be “a lot of fun.”

First, a foul odor in the capsule held up the test for an hour. Then communication problems set in, Space.com reported.

“How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?” Grissom shouted through the static, according to the publication.

Finally a countdown to an imaginary liftoff began on the Cape Kennedy launch pad. Then a single, chilling word could be heard over the radio from inside the sealed capsule.


A one-way trip

Ten years earlier, an “overheated, cramped, frightened, and probably hungry” passenger rode Sputnik 2 as it hurtled through space, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

Laika, a Siberian husky-spritz mix picked up from the streets of Moscow, became the first living creature to orbit the Earth — and the first to die in space.

Sent on a one-way trip, Laika died of overheating sometime after her fourth orbit around Earth in November 1957, the magazine reported.

But she was never expected to live more than seven days, when her oxygen would have run out, anyway.

“The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it,” Russian medical doctor and space dog trainer Oleg Gazenko said more than 30 years later, according to the magazine.

The Soviets later sent other dogs into orbit, this time with mostly successful plans to return them alive to Earth. Laika was memorialized in 2015 with a statue at a Moscow military research facility.

‘I smell fire’

“Fire. I smell fire.” Chaffee’s voice was calm over the radio, the National Air and Space Museum reported. Then listeners heard White, more urgently: “Fire in the cockpit.”

Seconds earlier, instruments had shown a sudden increase in oxygen flow to the cockpit. Then one of the astronauts, probably Grissom, moved slightly in his seat.

The cumbersome emergency escape procedures for the capsule were supposed to take at least 90 seconds, the museum said. The crew had never even come close to moving that quickly in earlier tests.

Grissom had to remove a headrest so White could reach behind his seat with a ratchet-like device to release the first of a series of latches. The astronauts only made it that far.

Officials monitoring the video feed saw what appeared to be White reaching for the inner handle to the hatch, The Washington Post reported. They heard what sounded like a scream over the radio.

Then the capsule ruptured, pouring smoke and flames onto the launch pad, according to the publication.

It took five minutes for NASA crews to fully open the capsule, which some feared might explode, The Washington Post reported.

Forty-year-old Grissom, 31-year-old Chaffee and 36-year-old White were found dead inside. Autopsies later showed they had died of toxic smoke inhalation and burns, the National Air and Space Museum said.

Early casualties

But the three U.S. astronauts weren’t the first humans to perish in the pursuit of space.

In March 1961, cosmonaut trainee Valentin Bondarenko died in the former Soviet Union when a fire broke out in an oxygen-rich low-pressure altitude chamber, The New York Times reported.

Bondarenko, 24, became the first spaceflight-related casualty when a cotton swab ignited during a 15-day test inside the chamber, according to the publication.

And in 1964 and 1966, the United States suffered its first deaths after two training jet crashes killed three astronauts.

‘Valiant young men’

Funerals were held in Houston for each of the three Apollo 1 astronauts, NASA reported.

Grissom and Chaffee were buried at Arlington National Cemetery and White at West Point Military Academy with full honors and top U.S. officials in attendance.

“Three valiant young men have given their lives in the nation’s service. We mourn this great loss and our hearts go out to their families,” then-President Lyndon B. Johnson said, NASA reported.

“Although everyone realized that someday space pilots would die, who would have thought the first tragedy would be on the ground?” NASA Administrator James E. Webb said.

The families hold on to different memories.

Mark Grissom recalled his father’s concerns about the Apollo 1 mission.

“I was kind of expecting him not to go,” he told The Washington Post. “But he was doing everything he could to get the thing ready to go into space. He wasn’t having much luck.”

Ed White III remembered his father as “fearless.”

“He wasn’t afraid. Nothing scared Dad in any way,” he told the publication.

And Sheryl Chaffee remembers the moment her mother told her and her brother that their father wasn’t coming home.

“Of course, I really didn’t understand that,” Chaffee, who was 8 years old at the time, told The Washington Post. “I think I even asked her, ‘what, are you getting divorced?’”

‘Cries of rage’

In April 1967, just a few months after the Apollo 1 capsule fire, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov of the former Soviet Union died when the parachute on his capsule failed on re-entry. And he reportedly died “cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship,” according to National Public Radio.

Komarov orbited the Earth aboard Soyuz 1 on a one-day mission plagued by a series of problems. He died when the capsule smashed into the ground at high speed.

According to a book on the disaster, U.S. listening posts “picked up (Komarov’s) cries of rage as he plunged to his death,” NPR reported.

‘Forever accountable’

“Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up,” NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz told his team after the deadly fire, according to the American Institute of Physics.

“Whatever it was, we should have caught it,” Kranz said. “We were too gung-ho about the schedule, and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work.”

NASA put the Apollo program on hold and created a special review board to investigate the accident. The panel released a 3,000-page report a few months later.

While they could not pinpoint the exact cause of the fire, investigators found evidence of electrical arcs in several wires under Grissom’s command couch, NASA said.

Fire-resistant Teflon coating had been used on the wiring, but the Teflon was easily penetrated, damaging the wires, the American Institute of Physics said.

To decrease weight, the Apollo 1 cockpit was filled with 100% oxygen, providing a fast-burning fuel source for the fire, the institute said. The capsule interior also was filled with combustible materials, including nylon netting, foam pads and “an excess of Velcro.”

The probe found that because the test took place with the rocket unfueled, normal safety precautions — including plans to rescue the astronauts — were not followed as it was considered a less dangerous test, NASA said.

And the cumbersome procedures to release the inward-opening hatch were impossible to complete once the fire caused the air pressure to rise inside the capsule.

“We are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do,” Kranz told his team, the American Institute of Physics said. “We will never again compromise our responsibilities.”

The backup crew

Three Soviet cosmonauts later became the first humans to die in space when their Soyuz 11 capsule decompressed in orbit during a 1971 flight, Astronomy reported.

They weren’t even supposed to be the cosmonauts aboard.

Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev were tapped for the mission when one of the original crew was feared to have contracted tuberculosis, the magazine said.

The problem turned out to be an allergic reaction to pollen, but it was too late.

The three ill-fated replacements blasted off for the Soviet space station Salyut 1, where they spent three weeks carrying out experiments such as growing cabbages and onions in space, Astronomy reported.

Patsayev became the first person to celebrate a birthday in space when he turned 38, NASA reported.

But when their capsule returned safely to Earth, ground crews heard only silence from within, Astronomy reported. All three cosmonauts were found slumped over dead inside.

An air leak in the capsule had killed them in seconds.

Urns containing the ashes of the three cosmonauts were interred in the Kremlin Wall after ceremonies attended by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and other dignitaries, including U.S. astronaut Tom Stafford, NASA reported.

‘We found the problems. We fixed them’

The results of the investigation into the Apollo 1 fire changed the U.S. space program in countless ways.

NASA switched the capsule atmosphere in future launches to a 60-40 mix of oxygen and nitrogen, the American Institute of Physics reported.

New, non-combustible materials were designed for spacecraft and spacesuits. A more durable coating for wiring was created. And the capsule hatch was redesigned to open outward instead of inward.

NASA created a separate safety organization that didn’t report to the people running the missions, The Washington Post reported. Astronauts also took a stronger stance in addressing concerns like those Grissom had expressed about the Apollo 1 capsule.

“There was a lot more questioning of, ‘well, please explain this to me,’” Bob Sieck, a former NASA launch director, told The Washington Post. “‘I see what’s here, I hear what you’re saying, but tell me more. I don’t totally understand it.”’

While NASA would face other disasters, including the losses of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles, in some ways forcing the agency to re-learn the lessons of Apollo 1, Sieck said he thinks the Apollo 1 astronauts would have been proud.

“We found the problems,” Sieck told The Washington Post. “We fixed them. And as a result, the first time we attempted to put astronauts on the moon, and get them back safely, we did. And so, from my perspective, I think that the Apollo 1 crew would be good with that.”

But perhaps Grissom himself said it best.

“If we die, we want people to accept it,” he said in 1965. “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.”

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