The inside story of the Apollo 1 cabin fire

Historian James Donovan reconstructs the moment tragedy struck the Apollo 1 countdown test

Published March 24, 2019 2:00PM (EDT)

Edwin E. 'Buzz' Aldrin, Jr. saluting the US flag on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission; "Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11" by James Donovan (Getty/NASA/Little Brown)
Edwin E. 'Buzz' Aldrin, Jr. saluting the US flag on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission; "Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11" by James Donovan (Getty/NASA/Little Brown)

Adapted from "Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11" by James Donovan. Copyright 2019, Little, Brown & Company

The Apollo program started in the halcyon years of the late fifties when the nation was flush from the postwar industrial boom and free of major social disturbances; but by the mid-sixties, the political landscape had shifted significantly. Those seemingly happy days had hidden underlying stresses that blew up in the sixties, and by 1966, deadly race riots rooted in poverty and inequality were frequent, and protests against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War were escalating.

Despite the increased criticism and apathy toward it, the Apollo program continued, though NASA’s budget, adjusted for inflation, was about to start shrinking. It was still massive — for 1966, it was 4.4 percent of the federal budget — but the message from Congress appeared mixed; they were essentially saying, Go ahead and land on the moon, but don’t count on another program of equal size after that. More than anything, what kept NASA going was its commitment to a beloved leader cut down in his prime less than three years into his administration, a president who had been indifferent to the space effort at first but who had come to embrace it, at first for political purposes, then with genuine enthusiasm. JFK's death had only strengthened that promise, and the people of NASA and others in government would keep it, despite the naysayers in Congress and the scientific community who said that the dangers of manned spaceflight outweighed its benefits and that machines and robots could do the same things as their human counterparts and more — and for a lot less money.

By late 1966, Go Fever had taken hold at both NASA and the factories of its thousands of contractors. The rush was on to get everything done as quickly as possible, and that meant overlooking potential small issues, since dealing with them might lead to missed delivery dates. The end of the race was in sight. And though Mercury project astronaut Gus Grissom was well aware of the command module’s problems, he was caught up in Go Fever too. Because if the Apollo 1 flight went well and the next few did also, he was convinced he’d be the first choice to land on the moon. After all, NASA’s upper management, which included Slayton and Kraft, believed that it should be a Mercury astronaut if at all possible, and he was the only one left that they trusted to get the job done right. Following his successful Gemini 3 flight, he felt he’d redeemed himself after the bad ending of his Mercury mission, and his relationship with the press had much improved; from then on, one newsman said, he was “a reporter’s delight.” If he and his crew could just get through these tests and NASA could get those fixes done on his spacecraft, they’d be all right.

Grissom’s crewmates for Apollo 1 were thirty-six-year-old Ed White, the first American spacewalker and already a national hero, and thirty-one-year-old Roger Chaffee, a member of the 1963 group of astronauts. White had recently told his father, who had been a barnstorming pilot in the thirties, that his goal was to make the first flight to the moon. Chaffee, though he hadn’t flown in Gemini, was highly regarded; he was a former navy pilot of fighter jets and spy planes — he had flown reconnaissance missions over Cuba during the missile crisis in October 1962 — and a perfectionist as an engineer. Chaffee and Grissom were both Purdue graduates, and the two had become close — Chaffee had even picked up some of Grissom’s habits, like salting his speech with an occasional profanity. Gus, who would soon turn forty-one, was fond of the young pilot and referred to him as “a really great boy.”

Grissom hadn’t been able to ride herd on the Apollo spacecraft from its earliest manufacturing stages as he’d done with Gemini. Because the two programs were developed concurrently, other astronauts had been involved in the early assembly and testing of the command-service module at North American Aviation’s plant in Downey, California, and they hadn’t been allowed the input Grissom had with Gemini. To make matters worse, the contractor had been unwilling to share data and drawings with NASA flight controllers and astronauts. But Grissom was doing his best to catch up, and he wasn’t happy about how things were going. None of the Apollo components was progressing smoothly or on schedule.

In fact, if the module had been a horse, “they would have shot it sometime in 1966, perhaps as early as 1965,” said Walt Williams, the former Mercury operations director. What would be Grissom’s craft, AS-204 — labeled as such because it was Apollo-Saturn, launched into space by the fourth booster produced in the second Saturn series, the Saturn IB — was particularly rife with problems, from its communications and propulsion to its environmental systems and beyond. This resulted in an unruly accumulation of electrical wiring — there was some twenty miles of it in the spacecraft — that could barely be squeezed in. Apollo was several orders of magnitude more complex than Gemini, and everyone was beginning to find out what that meant for schedules.

Slayton had assigned Grissom the first Apollo flight soon after Gus’s March 1965 Gemini 3 mission. Gus and his crewmates began spending weeks away from home, either at North American Aviation’s factory in California or at Grumman’s on Long Island, though most of their time was spent at the former — Jim McDivitt, who was off Gemini 4 in early June, had been assigned to the LM, and Grumman was in charge of that. They spent long days attending countless meetings, monitoring design and manufacturing reviews, making inspections, and testing the spacecraft, which mostly meant sitting in it for hours on end while reporting design and operational flaws to one or more engineers or technicians. Some North American Aviation engineers had dubbed Grissom “the Nitpicker” for his thoroughness. Grissom’s home life and that of his crewmates and their backups consisted largely of spending a single weekend night with their families to remind their kids that they had fathers and their wives that they had husbands.

At the Cape, the main mission simulator was so far behind in incorporating the latest developments that Grissom hung a large lemon from it a few days before the test. And in a December press conference, Grissom had stated that a successful flight would be one in which he and his crew made it back alive. The reporters laughed, thinking he was joking. It wasn’t entirely clear that he was, particularly in view of what he told Al Shepard in private: “This is the worst spacecraft I’ve ever seen.” He told his wife that his crewmates were not spending enough time on the command module — “He thought they should be working instead of playing,” she remembered. But he was careful not to gripe too loudly. “They’ll fire me,” he told his old Gemini 3 crewmate, John Young.

The pressure to get these components finished and shipped to Cape Kennedy was intense, and despite some shoddy workmanship and incomplete inspections, they did. There was just too much involved for the astronauts to stay on top of it all. Grissom gave Slayton and Shepard a long list of problems, and they assured him they’d be fixed before the actual launch. But Go Fever had taken over, and there wasn’t enough time to do things right or fix what needed to be fixed now. NASA had three manned Apollo missions scheduled for 1967 and a total of fifteen Saturn V rockets on order, though it was hoped that a lunar landing would be accomplished by the ninth or tenth launch — and before the end of the decade. Keeping such a tight schedule depended on a good, solid shakedown flight to find all the problems in the command-service module.

Though the actual mission was set for February 21, 1967, there were several important tests scheduled before then. One was a plugs-out test: a simulated full countdown, at the end of which the spacecraft would be switched to internal power, almost identical to actual launch conditions, to test the compatibility of all systems and make sure that the spacecraft could function on internal power alone. It would involve only the command and service modules, no booster, so it would be safe, a routine dress rehearsal that was scheduled to run for about five hours. Inside the cabin, the environment would be 100 percent oxygen, not Earth’s sea-level atmosphere of 80 percent nitrogen and 20 percent oxygen, in order to avoid the bends that nitrogen in the blood could induce. A single-gas atmosphere also eliminated the need for complex plumbing, which was required to maintain the proper mix, and that plumbing’s extra weight. Pure oxygen, though highly flammable, had been used in Mercury and Gemini with no complications.

Wally Schirra and his backup crew had been in the cone-shaped command module two days before performing a similar countdown test, this one plugs-in, using external power with the hatch left open. They had done it at sea-level atmosphere, breathing ambient air, and without spacesuits. That test had become a twenty-three-hour marathon that had ended at three a.m. the previous day. Afterward, Schirra told Grissom that he had a bad feeling about the spacecraft. “You’re going to be in there with full oxygen tomorrow,” he said, “and if you have the same feeling I do, I suggest you get out.”

At about noon on a chilly Friday, January 27, at Cape Kennedy’s launchpad 34, Grissom, White, and Chaffee, in their white flight suits, took the elevator two hundred and twenty feet up to level eight and went across the twenty-foot catwalk to the White Room, a protective enclosure surrounding the command module during installation and checkout. Deke Slayton was with them — he had considered lying down at their feet in the cabin during the test to try to figure out some of the communications problems dogging the command module, but Grissom vetoed the idea. By one p.m. they were strapped into their couches, familiar from hours spent in vacuum-chamber tests in Houston, and Slayton left for the blockhouse, where he would monitor the test. The command-service module sat atop the unfueled Saturn IB booster.

Technicians sealed the three-part entry hatch — first the inner hatch, then the outer hatch, and finally the booster cover cap. The original design had called for a one-piece hatch that would be released by explosive bolts, but when Grissom nearly drowned after splashdown in the Liberty Bell 7, the design had been changed to one that could never be accidentally opened. None of the astronauts liked it, since it eliminated the possibility of an EVA from the command module. A simpler, hinged hatch was in the works, though it wouldn’t be available on Grissom’s Block I version. You needed a wrench to loosen the six bolts on the inner hatch (in simulations, no one had been able to do that in under ninety seconds), and the hatch couldn’t open unless the pressure inside and out was equal. The cabin was pressurized to 16.7 pounds per square inch, slightly higher than sea-level atmospheric pressure of 14.7 pounds per square inch.

The crew sat three abreast, their shoulders almost touching: Grissom on the left in the commander’s seat, senior pilot White in the middle, and pilot Chaffee on the right. Above them and in front of them were multiple gauges, switches, dials, lights, and toggles.

The crewmates had been at the Cape all week, but they’d spent the previous Sunday night with their families. Grissom and his wife had discussed the big party scheduled for all the astronauts and their wives for the day after the launch, Saturday, back in Houston. One of the last things he’d done was pluck a lemon from the tree in his backyard for the simulator. The crew hoped to finish this plugs-out test — and a practice emergency egress that Grissom had insisted on — at a reasonable time so they could fly their T-38s back to Houston, get a good night’s sleep in their own homes, and try to let some steam off at the party. But the command module wasn’t cooperating. The astronauts slowly worked their way through the preflight checklist and waited through several holds while the ground crew labored to fix a radio glitch; constant static marred communication between Mission Control and the spacecraft. After Grissom had to repeat himself several times to be understood, his frustration boiled over: “I said, Jesus Christ, if we can’t communicate across three miles, how the hell are we going to communicate when we’re on the moon?”

The day wore on. At 4:00 p.m., one shift of technicians left and another came on. At 5:40 p.m., near sunset, another hold was called at T minus ten minutes to deal with one more communications problem before the simulated liftoff, when the plugs would be pulled. This, everyone hoped, would be the final delay. After it, they could proceed with the last ten minutes, finish it up, get through the emergency egress practice — the three astronauts would take the gantry’s highspeed elevator down to a fireproof truck waiting at the base of the pad — and get out of there. Someone suggested that the test be postponed, but that was overruled. Redoing the test would cost more time, and time was something they didn’t have.

A few seconds before 6:31 p.m., as the crew members once more ran through their checklist, there was a slight surge in voltage.

Nine seconds later, one of the crew yelled, “Hey!”

A moment passed, then a voice — maybe White’s — rang out: “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!”

Seven seconds of silence followed. Then a garbled transmission, possibly from Chaffee: “We’ve got a bad fire — let’s get out . . . we’re burning up.”

There was a final howl of pain, and nothing more.

The twenty-seven men of the pad rescue team rushed across the catwalk. Fourteen seconds after the first shout of alarm, the command module’s hull ruptured, spewing flames and gases. The shock wave knocked them down, and some of them ran across the catwalk to the elevator, believing that the command module had exploded or was about to. Several grabbed fire extinguishers, ran to the White Room, and struggled to open the module’s hatch, but the heat and smoke drove many of them back. They returned moments later, some with gas masks. While the pad leader called for firefighters and ambulances, five men took turns with a hatch-removal tool, working by touch in the dense, dark smoke and making several trips in and out of the White Room to breathe. About five minutes after the first report of fire, they finally got all three hatches open, but by then it was too late. The fire had lasted just twenty-five seconds, but the three astronauts were gone, asphyxiated by the toxic gases in the cabin. There was no fire extinguisher inside.

A quarter of a mile away, in the concrete blockhouse, Deke Slayton, Grissom’s best friend, was sitting next to rookie astronaut Stu Roosa, the CapCom, and talking to Rocco Petrone, the no-nonsense director of launch operations at Cape Kennedy. Slayton jumped up from his seat when he heard the first shout. He and everyone else there turned to the video monitors and watched helplessly as flames in the spacecraft built to a white glare and then subsided. Slayton thought he saw a movement in the cabin. A few seconds later, they heard someone at the launchpad yell for a doctor. Slayton and two physicians rushed to the pad, rode the elevator up to level eight, and hurried into the White Room, where the hatch was already open. When Slayton peered in, he saw a blanket of black ash covering everything. “It looks like the inside of a furnace,” he said; the Washington Post used those words as a headline a few days later.

It would be determined later that a spark below and to the left of Grissom’s couch — probably a short in a bundle of wires somewhere in the many miles of wiring in the command-service module — had reached something flammable and ignited a fire that had raged through the cabin, burning anything and everything in its path: belts and straps, nylon netting, spacesuits, helmet covers, oxygen hoses, aluminum coolant tubes, and the many Velcro fasteners and patches scattered everywhere. The pure oxygen was almost instantly replaced by carbon monoxide and toxic black smoke that invaded the crew’s oxygen lines. The official cause of death was suffocation, although the men had also suffered serious but not life-threatening burns. It was later estimated that the interior temperature reached at least twenty-four hundred degrees Fahrenheit — the melting point of stainless steel, found melted inside.

In the last seconds before he died, Grissom had moved out of his seat, presumably to try to help White open the hatch bolts. The heat and the melted material had welded the astronauts to various parts of the cabin and, for Grissom and White, to each other. When Slayton looked inside the blackened shell, he couldn’t tell which head belonged to which body. After all the doctors, firemen, and other emergency personnel had arrived, the scene was extensively photographed, inside and out, to aid in the forthcoming investigation. At about 12:30 a.m., they began removing the bodies; it would take ninety minutes to complete the job. Twenty-seven pad technicians were taken to the hospital and treated for smoke inhalation.

Sometime later, after the escape rocket was disarmed, Slayton left for his office. As word of the tragedy spread through NASA’s ranks, Deke and Chuck Friedlander, the gregarious chief of the astronaut support office at Cape Kennedy, spent hours calling everyone who needed to know. Deke alerted astronauts in the Houston area and gave them a tough assignment: They or their wives were to get over to the Grissom, White, and Chaffee homes as quickly as possible to tell the families what had happened before they heard it on the news or got calls from inquiring reporters. Michael Collins had the task of driving over to Nassau Bay to tell Martha Chaffee. A few astronaut wives had arrived at her house earlier but hadn’t told her; when she saw Collins arrive, she knew.

By James Donovan

James Donovan is a historian and the author of "SHOOT FOR THE MOON: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11."

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