Apollo 1 DisasterJan 28th, 2006
Immediately prior to the accident, the crew members were reclining in their horizontal couches, running through a checklist of things they would do in space while a communication system problem was being fixed. Suddenly, a voice (now believed to be Chaffee's, as his was the only clear channel) was heard over the COM link, "We've got fire in the cockpit." A few seconds later the transmissions ended with a cry of pain. On the television monitors, Ed White was seen to be attempting to open the hatch. However, the two-piece hatch was of a design which required that the crew undo several bolts in order to remove the inner section, and was impossible to open quickly. Furthermore, the inner portion of hatch opened inwards, an intentional design feature intended to exploit the cabin's air pressure in order to further tighten the hatch seal during spaceflight. The hot gasses produced by the fire held the hatch shut, and within a few seconds the air pressure had risen enough to prevent the crew from escaping (and in fact the air pressure rose so high as to rupture the capsule).
The fire is believed to have been caused by a spark somewhere in the capsule's 30 miles (50 km) of wiring. Due to the pure oxygen inside the capsule (which was at a pressure of 15 psi or 100 kPa) the fire was quickly out of control. The Apollo 204 Review Board determined that a silver-plated copper wire running through an environmental control unit near the command module pilot's couch had become stripped of its insulation and abraded by repeated opening and closing of an associated access door. This weak point in the wiring also happened to pass near a junction in a ethylene glycol / water cooling line, which had developed a leak. The electrolysis of ethylene glycol solution with the anode made of silver resulted in a violent exothermic reaction that ignited the ethylene glycol mixture, which in turn was able to burn in the atmosphere of pure pressurized oxygen. A similar March 1961 incident had previously claimed the life of Soviet cosmonaut trainee Valentin Bondarenko when the pure oxygen atmosphere in the isolation chamber he had been occupying had caught fire, a calamity the USSR had, for years, concealed from the public.
The fire spread quickly and within seconds was an inferno. The ground crew needed five minutes to open the hatch and suppress the flames. The fire had melted the astronauts' space suits and the air lines which connected them to the capsule's life support systems. Grissom's and White's suits were found to have fused together. It was evident from how the corpses lay that they had tried to get out, but they never had a chance. Ed White, who was supposed to open the hatch, was partway out of his harness and had apparently made an effort to escape. The procedure would have had Grissom lower White's headrest, and White proceed to unlatch over 12 bolts to release the hatch. Indeed, even if he were to accomplish that, the internal pressure had risen so high that the inward-opening hatch could not have been opened. Chaffee's job was to begin shutting down the spacecraft and maintain communications with ground control, and was found dead still strapped into his right hand seat. Only 17 seconds from the first call of "Fire!", all three were dead.
It was later confirmed that the crew had actually died of smoke inhalation rather than burns. According to the Report of the Apollo 204 Review Board — Appendix D Panel 11, (link provided below), Grissom suffered third degree burns on 36% of his body (1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns covered 60% of his body) and his spacesuit was 70% destroyed. White suffered third degree burns on 40% of his body (1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns covered 48% of his body) and his spacesuit was 25% destroyed. Chaffee suffered third degree burns on 23% of his body (1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns covered 29% of his body) and his spacesuit was 15% destroyed.
The company that produced the command module, North American Aviation, had originally suggested that the hatch open outward and be able to open with explosive bolts in case of emergency. They had also suggested that the atmosphere be an oxygen/nitrogen mixture, like on the earth's surface. NASA didn't agree, arguing that the hatch could be accidentally opened (this is what caused Liberty Bell 7 — ironically, piloted by Grissom — to sink into the ocean during splashdown recovery operations; Grissom himself argued that the hatch should be stronger, more secure, and harder to open), and that if too much nitrogen were released into the atmosphere, the astronauts would pass out and then die. They also argued that since a pure oxygen atmosphere was used safely in Mercury and Gemini, it should be safe to use for Apollo. Furthermore, such a design saved weight. After the fire, Apollo was grounded pending a redesign, with the following results:
The atmosphere would not be pressurized to 2 lbf/in² (14 kPa) above atmospheric pressure. It would consist of 60% oxygen and 40% nitrogen at sea-level pressure at launch, lowering to 5 kPA of pressure during launch, and gradually changing over to 100% oxygen during the first 24 hours of the trans-lunar coast.
The hatch would open outward, and be operable in less than ten seconds.
Flammable materials in the cabin were replaced with self-extinguishing materials.
Plumbing and wiring were covered with protective insulation.
1,407 wiring problems were corrected.
Nylon suits were replaced with coated glass fabric suits, much more difficult to ignite.
When North American Aviation shipped Spacecraft CM-012 to Kennedy Space Center, it bore a banner proclaiming it "Apollo One" and Grissom's crew had received approval for an "Apollo 1" patch in June 1966, but NASA was planning to call that mission "AS-204." After the fire, the astronauts' widows asked that "Apollo 1" be reserved for the flight their husbands would never make. For a time, mission planners called the next scheduled launch "Apollo 2." Suggestions were made that the flights should be called "Apollo 1" (AS-204), "Apollo 1A" (AS-201), "Apollo 2" (AS-202), and "Apollo 3" (AS-203). Finally, the NASA Project Designation Committee approved "Apollo 4" for the first (unmanned) Apollo-Saturn V mission (AS-501), but declared that there would be no retroactive renaming of AS-201, -202, or -203. The Apollo 1 (AS-204) Saturn IB rocket was taken down from Launch Complex 34 and later reassembled at Launch Complex 37B. It was used to launch the Apollo 5 LM-1 into earth orbit for the first Lunar Module test mission.
While Launch Complex 34 has been essentially dismantled, the cement and steel-reinforced launch platform remains at the site. The platform bears two plaques for the 3 men who perished. One says:
LAUNCH COMPLEX 34
Friday, 27 January 1967
Dedicated to the living memory of the crew of the Apollo 1:
U.S.A.F. Lt. Colonel Virgil I. Grissom
U.S.A.F. Lt. Colonel Edward H. White, II
U.S.N. Lt. Commander Roger B. Chaffee
They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind's final frontier. Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived
The other says:
IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO MADE THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE SO OTHERS COULD REACH FOR THE STARS
AD ASTRA PER ASPERA
(A ROUGH ROAD LEADS TO THE STARS)
GOD SPEED TO THE CREW OF APOLLO 1
This plaque was featured in the film Armageddon.
In addition to both, a college classmate of one of the astronauts fashioned three granite benches, one for each member of the crew. The benches were installed in January 2005.
Each year the families of the Apollo 1 crew are invited to the site for a memorial, and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center offers a visit to the site for those who choose to take a special tour to the older launch sites that are on Cape Canaveral.
Three stars, Navi, Dnoces and Regor were named in honor of the crew. The names are "Ivan," "Second" and "Roger" spelled backwards. Ivan was Grissom's middle name and White was Edward H. White the Second. The crew used the stars to calibrate their equipment and, as a practical joke, recorded the names in official NASA documentation. The names eventually stuck as a posthumous honor.
The space community, particularly USENET newsgroups sci.space.history and sci.space.policy, frequently see semi-anonymous postings which accuse NASA and/or other US authorities of arson and conspiracy to assassinate the crew of Apollo 1. It is claimed that NASA administrators held Grissom personally responsible for the loss of the Liberty Bell 7 capsule at sea, and wanted to avenge this agency-wide loss of face. According to the Star tabloid, Grissom's son Scott Grissom, a pilot himself, demanded a renewed investigation into the Apollo 1 disaster back in 1999. Nonetheless, the accusations are generally regarded as trolling by the USENET community.