Date: January 27, 1967
Crew: Commander Virgil "Gus" Grissom (40)
Command Module Pilot Ed White (36)
Lunar Module Pilot Roger Chaffee (31)
Click picture to see NASA's dedication film (2:50)
"If we die, we want people to accept it. We are 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." – Gus Grissom
Chilling words in retrospect, considering their speaker would be dead only weeks after uttering them, one of the very first casualties of the space program.
Apollo 1 was scheduled to run through an entire countdown sequence. Grissom, White and Chaffee climbed into the craft around 1:00pm and were sealed inside for a complete simulation of the launch that was to occur the following month.
Pure oxygen at a pressure of 16.7 pounds per square inch pumped into the cabin. Tests proceeded routinely, with the usual banter, team handovers, and only minor communications glitches. Just before sunset at 6:31pm, technicians heard a cry over the radio circuit from inside the capsule:
"We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!"
"We’ve got a bad fire... get us out...!"
Afterward, there would be no final agreement on who shouted what. It took five minutes to get the hatches open because shock waves and secondary explosions drove back those trying to wrench them free. There was no time for firemen, no time for ambulances. A review board would conclude that the atmosphere inside the Apollo 1 capsule became lethal only 24 seconds after the fire began. The crew had not burned to death as most people assumed, but died from asphyxia due to inhalation of toxic gases before the fire reached its acme.
It was later decided that the fire started due to a short circuit near Grissom’s seat. There had been no fire extinguisher in the capsule, a tragic oversight.
After 16 successful space flights, NASA saw their first true disaster, reminding us all that people could and would lose their lives in our efforts to explore beyond the protective biosphere of our planet. Many had assumed that if tragedy struck, it would be in space itself –- certainly not during a mere pre-flight test on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Had we strutted too casually into the unknown? The deaths uncovered fatal flaws in the moonship... and 1,341 changes would be made in Apollo before it was deemed worthy of once more attempting to fly in space.
President Lyndon Johnson led the nation in mourning for the fallen astronauts, attending the funerals of Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee at Arlington National Cemetery. Ed White was buried at the West Point Military Academy cemetery.
The capsule and crew were originally designated AS-204, but following the fire, the astronauts' widows requested that the mission be remembered as "Apollo 1."
The Patch That Never Flew