July 16, 2019
July 16, 2019 5:07 PM EDT
Apollo 1 capsule after the tragic fire which killed astronauts Roger Chaffee, Edward White and Virgil Grissom.
Fifty years ago today, the three-man Apollo 11 crew was halfway to the moon.
Commander Neil Armstrong, lander pilot Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins did a 96-minute live TV broadcast from space, demonstrating how they exercised in zero gravity and what it was like inside their two conjoined spacecraft: Columbia and Eagle.
Their mission almost didn’t happen. A disaster early in the Apollo program could well have shut down the entire American moon effort.
A year and half earlier, NASA was ready for to launch the first Apollo crew.
The success of the one-man Mercury spaceflights and the two-man Gemini flights had proven astronauts could live and work in space for the duration of a moon mission.
The space race — Sputnik to Apollo
Apollo 11 bag used for lunar samples focus of legal dispute
GUEST COLUMN: The false, but persistent, rumor that Neil Armstrong converted to Islam
It was time for the first manned test of the three-man Apollo spacecraft capable of reaching the moon.
On January 27, 1967 three astronauts climbed into the Apollo 1 command module, perched atop a giant Saturn V rocket.
They would spend the day running through final checklists before their launch — six days away.
Apollo 1 astronauts (L-R) Roger Chaffee, Edward White and Virgil “Gus” Grissom practice in the Apollo Mission Simulator.
Virgil “Gus” Grissom, one the original “Mercury Seven” astronauts who had also commanded a Gemini mission, was in the command pilot seat. Apollo 1 would be his third spaceflight.
Alongside Grissom, were senior pilot Edward H. White, who had flown on Gemini 4, and rookie astronaut Roger Chaffee.
The crew strapped into their seats around 1 p.m. The pre-flight checks and rehearsal began. The three-piece hatch was closed and the bolts dogged tight. The air in the capsule was purged and replaced with pure oxygen, as it would be on launch day.
Oxygen was lighter than air, and every ounce mattered.
The tests were still underway at 6:31 p.m. when mission control received a distress call from the crew.
“We have a fire in the cockpit!”
Mission controllers looked to the video feed from inside the capsule to see Ed White reach for the hatch.
Opening it was complicated at the best of times.
He didn’t get a chance.
The inside of the cockpit – filled with pure oxygen – exploded into flames. The intense heat pressurized the capsule and made opening the inward-opening door impossible.
It took the ground crew five minutes to open the hatch. It was difficult to see inside. They soon found all three astronauts still strapped in their seats, dead.
The tragedy brought the Apollo program to a standstill.
Under pressure from the Soviet Union, who were rumoured to be progressing with their own manned lunar program, the Americans were determined to carry on.
It took 18 months to investigate and rectify the problems — including a redesign of the hatch to make it easier to open — and a change from pure oxygen atmosphere to a much less volatile “normal air” oxygen-nitrogen mix.
The next manned Apollo mission launched successfully on October 11, 1968.
By July 20 the following year, NASA was ready to launch Apollo 11 – commanded by Neil Armstrong on the first attempt to land a spacecraft on the moon.