On 27 January 1967, a tragic event occurred during a ground test of the Apollo spacecraft that would later be known as the Apollo 1 space disaster. American astronauts, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee, were inside the Command Module of Apollo 1, strapped into their seats, as they prepared for the first low-orbit test mission of the spacecraft. The launch was scheduled for 21 February 1967, and the day of the incident was intended to be a ground test and rehearsal, with the giant booster below the Apollo capsule not yet being fuelled.
What followed was a tragic event that led to significant changes in the design and safety protocols of the Apollo spacecraft, which went on to help facilitate the success of the Apollo program’s push to land men on the Moon.
With the test underway, the crew abruptly reported to Ground Control that a fire had broken out inside the capsule. The fire quickly spread due to the high-pressure pure-oxygen atmosphere and flammable materials used in the interior structure of the capsule. Tragically, the design of the capsule access hatch proved to be cumbersome, preventing a rapid escape for the astronauts. As the fire gutted the cramped interior of the capsule, the astronauts were overcome by the noxious fumes, leading to their untimely deaths.
It was several hours before the capsule could be opened and the bodies recovered. Post mortem examinations showed that the crew had probably died of cardiac arrest brought on by breathing massive concentrations of carbon monoxide.
America had suffered its first fatalities of the space programme, tragically without them having left Earth.
The subsequent investigation into the Apollo 1 space disaster was highly critical of the spacecraft’s design and the inadequate safety procedures in place at the time. Although the exact cause of the fire could not be definitively determined, it was believed to be most likely due to an electrical fault.
The investigation identified six contributing factors to the disaster, including a sealed cabin pressurised with an oxygen atmosphere, the presence of combustible materials throughout the cabin, vulnerable wiring carrying spacecraft power, vulnerable plumbing carrying a combustible and corrosive coolant, inadequate provisions for the crew to escape, and inadequate provisions for rescue or medical assistance.
As a result of the investigation, changes were made to the design and safety protocols of the Apollo spacecraft to prevent similar accidents in the future. The crew of Apollo 1, along with other astronauts and cosmonauts, are honoured on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center.
Launch Complex 34, where the test took place, was used only once more after the Apollo 1 disaster before being dismantled, leaving only the concrete launch pedestal that bears two plaques in memory of the Apollo 1 crew.