NASA Displayed Apollo 1 Capsule 50 Years After It Tragically Burst into Flames

By | February 7, 2017

We know all about the Apollo 1 mission and how it ended. Last January 27, 50 years after the fire that occurred during a rehearsal launch — killing Gus Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee — NASA honored the tragedy for its historical significance by displaying the capsule at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Veteran astronaut Virgil Grissom, first American spacewalker Ed White and rookie Roger Chaffee, stand for a photograph in Cape Kennedy, Fla. (NASA via AP)

The event that occurred on January 27, 1967 was intended to be a “plugs out” test to ensure that the spacecraft would function on internal power while detached from its cables. If all had gone according to plan, the shuttle would’ve launched on February 21st of that year.

Upon entering the capsule that day and strapping into their seats, Grissom immediately noticed something wasn’t right. He sensed an odor circulating through the vessel which he compared to “sour buttermilk.” It was later deemed that this scent had no effect on the fire, but in any event, the countdown was put on hold for several minutes.

One hour and forty-two minutes after the initial countdown was supposed to begin, the countdown resumed. Three minutes later, the hatch installation was started. As soon as the hatches were sealed, air in the cabin was replaced with pure oxygen to simulate what would occur when the capsule left Earth’s atmosphere.

Things seemed completely normal until there was a momentary increase in AC Bus 2 voltage. Not long after, shouts of “Fire!… Open ‘er up” were shouted through the communications system. The fire quickly became an uncontrollable inferno as the pure oxygen level rose way too high. Then the Command Module’s inner wall ruptured, causing a sudden blast of air to further engulf the entire cabin.

Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin attended the anniversary ceremony
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For the first time, the hatch that trapped the men in the blaze is on display.

The hatch, as well as the command module, have been hidden from the public for the last half-century, despite their role in NASA's first space tragedy. It will be shown at the Kennedy Space Center alongside the safer hatch that replaced it.

Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, the two remaining crew members of the Apollo 11 mission that sent Americans to the moon, were among those in attendance at the ceremony.

In this June 1966 photo, the Apollo 1 crew practices water evacuation procedures with a full scale model of the spacecraft at Ellington AFB, near the then-Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston. In the rafts at right are astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee, foreground. In a raft near the spacecraft is astronaut Virgil Grissom. (NASA via AP)

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Fallout from the disaster was ubiquitous across political agencies, committees, and NASA itself. The Apollo program was grounded and forced to perform a review and redesign of the Command Module. The original Block I spacecraft would only be used for unmanned Saturn V test flights. Manned missions would use the Block II spacecraft which contained several major design changes—cabin atmosphere adjustments, nylon flight suits replaced with non-flammable beta cloth, and use of a cartridge of pressurized nitrogen to stimulate the release mechanism during an emergency.

The anniversary also sheds light on the fact that it’s been a very long time since the NASA space program was relevant. Luckily, in June of last year NASA announced plans to build a series of new X-planes over the coming decade. Hopefully this will reinvigorate the next generation’s interest in life beyond our atmosphere.

Related Books:
The Apollo 1 Disaster: The Controversial History and Legacy of the Fire that Caused One of NASA’s Greatest Tragedies
Apollo 1 and the Space Shuttle Challenger: The History of NASA’s Two Most Notorious Disasters

H/T WashingtonPost