On 27 January 1967 three American astronauts: Virgil “Gus” Grissom; Edward White; and Roger Chaffee were strapped into their couches inside the Command Module of Apollo 1.
The three-man crew were due to fly the first low-orbit test mission of the Apollo spacecraft, scheduled to launch on 21 February 1967. Today was just a ground test and rehearsal of the launch, the giant booster below the Apollo capsule wasn’t even fuelled.
With the test underway, the crew abruptly reported to Ground Control that a fire had broken out inside the capsule. Feeding on the high-pressure pure-oxygen atmosphere and flammable materials incorporated in the interior structure, the fire spread rapidly.
The clumsy design of the capsule access hatch prevented it from being opened rapidly and the three astronauts were soon overcome by the noxious fumes as the fire gutted the cramped interior of the capsule.
It was several hours before the capsule could be opened and the bodies recovered. Post mortem examinations showed that the three men 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.
A subsequent investigation was highly critical of the spacecraft’s design and of the poor and inadequate safety procedures. The investigation could not say definitively what caused the fire but it was most likely an electrical fault. The report listed six contributing factors to the disaster:
A sealed cabin, pressurised with an oxygen atmosphere.
An extensive distribution of combustible materials in the cabin.
Vulnerable wiring carrying spacecraft power.
Vulnerable plumbing carrying a combustible and corrosive coolant.
Inadequate provisions for the crew to escape.
Inadequate provisions for rescue or medical assistance.
The crew of Apollo 1 appear alongside other astronauts and cosmonauts on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Centre. Launch Complex 34, where the test took place, was used only once more after the Apollo 1 disaster. It was subsequently dismantled leaving only the concrete launch pedestal, which bares two plaques to the Apollo 1 crew.