When NASA Staff Opened The Hatches Of Apollo 1, They Were Met By A Truly Harrowing Sight

when NASA staff opened the hatches of

Apollo 1 they were met by a truly

harrowing sight it's January 27 1967 and

the a s 204 spacecraft which will become

known as Apollo one sits ready for

testing it's a bit more than three weeks

until the launch and NASA plans to

rehearse that moment here at Cape

Canaveral Florida however the three

pilots on board are suddenly confronted

with the test that they did not expect

and which leaves them helpless those

three men Virgil Gus Grissom who's in

command at white and Roger B Chaffee are

all highly experienced pilots two have

already visited space and soon the plan

is for the trio to take off in the first

mission in the Apollo program to carry

astronauts the module that they sit in

is known as block one a different design

from block two which would later go to

the moon the plan is not though for this

module to make a lunar trip his rocket

should take it into low orbit of the

earth it's an essential step in the

Apollo program the u.s. mission to put a

man on the moon

the name Apollo was selected by its head

Abe silverstein who believed the idea of

a God riding through the skies and his

chariot matched the size and scope of

the initiative the program was the third

effort by the National Aeronautics and

Space Administration to give NASA its

full title to put men in space its aim

was to meet the target set by President

John F Kennedy when he told Congress in

1961 that the US would land a man on the

moon by the end of the decade and return

him safely to earth the aim of the

Apollo missions was to send a cone

carrying three men up into orbit around

the moon and then back to splashdown in

an ocean here on earth the command

module was a bit more than 11 feet tall

and slightly less than 13 feet across it

came along with its own support module

which carried scientific instruments and

an engine North American Aviation had

been contracted to build the joint

command and support module and part of

the Saturn 5 rocket that would lift it

because of the way it had been designed

the modules own rocket was actually

sufficiently powerful to raise it from

the moon surface but this version would

only be used for tests

with a later model featuring a separate

lunar module the man aboard Apollo one

were highly trained astronauts the

command pilot Grissom had been involved

in NASA's space mission since day one

becoming the second American in space

and the first to go there twice indeed

the world war ii veteran had been

selected as one of the mercury 7 no 7

were the first chosen to be astronauts

in Project Mercury and were also known

as astronaut group 1 alongside Grissom

was Alan Shepard the first American in

space and other men who had all had for

the stars when their time came one of

the men would pilot each of the manned

mercury missions and the group would be

subsequently used for Gemini Apollo and

Space Shuttle missions when it came time

to choose who would be an astronaut it

had been decided that military test

pilots would be the best group to source

from on top of that astronauts had to be

fit educated and curiously no taller

than 5 foot 11 inches that's because the

mercury spacecraft could not fit a

bigger guy selecting astronauts was a

tough process beginning with whittling

test pilots down to the 110 who met the

criteria months of testing followed both

physical and mental with some tests akin

to torture including subjects having

their feet frozen in icy water and

suffering no fewer than five enemas but

the process winnowed out the best of a

group of high achievers with some of

those rejected going on to be Admirals

this Apollo 1 mission however featured

two men who had not been in the mercury

7 the first was white who had a career

not just as a test pilot but also as an

aeronautical engineer behind him he was

an experienced astronaut having been the

first on a US mission to step outside a

spacecraft and spacewalk in 1965 White

had piloted Gemini 4 on his June 1965

trip into orbit and on that flight he'd

made his exit from the spacecraft

he loved walking in space so much that

he actually required ordering back

inside but danger had not been far away

a problem with a hatch could have been

life-threatening had his partner not

been able to shut it again the third

member of the team Chaffee was lined up

for his first trip in space he'd been

one of nearly 2,000 applicants to be

part of the third astronaut group

progressing through the selection stages

despite having abnormally small but very

effective lungs he was delighted to be

chosen in October 1963

after selection Chaffee spent some time

working on the Gemini 3 and Gemini 4

projects before being placed as third

seat in the Apollo 1 mission heed once

said I've always wanted to fly and

perform adventurous flying tasks all my

life and now he'd reached the pinnacle

of flight

now Chaffee and the others were

scheduled to enter space and AAS 204 as

the vessel was coated the purpose was to

check launch procedures and once in the

sky try out the tracking and control for

future missions the plan was for the

mission to take as much as a couple of

weeks if it all went well for the first

time the craft would carry TV cameras so

the controllers could see its

instruments flight crew operations

director deke Slayton who had himself

been one of the mercury 7 picked the

crew for Apollo 1 originally adopted for

Don F aisel as 3rd seat but he managed

to dislocate a soldier in training so

Chaffee substituted for him by the end

of March 1966 the choice was set in

stone and NASA shared it with the public

in June the crew got the OK to put

together an Apollo 1 mission patch

although it hadn't been decided whether

the mission would carry the apollo name

the crew themselves were responsible for

its design centered on themes that link

to the mission itself with a North

American Aviation worker doing the art

the Apollo 1 module was way larger and

more complicated than anything that had

been built before when the crew looked

it over they expressed some concerns

about how much stuff that could catch on

fire filled it particularly velcro and

nylon Nets however this may have been

drowned out by other concerns as

engineering alterations bogged the

project down tests continued and changes

were made in response to their outcomes

the craft edged towards being ready for

takeoff as the builders worked on

smoothing down its rough edges it was

decided to make this the only crew test

of the block one design crews shifted

around getting set for the next stage of

the program not everyone was satisfied

with the crafts progress one of the

backup crew claimed to be uncomfortable

with the ship although he couldn't put

his finger on what the problem was he

urged Grissom to bail at the first sniff

of a problem but Grissom would not allow

fear to creep in indeed the chief pilot

said to New York Times newspaper

interview in 1966 he is sorta have to

put that out of your mind there's always

the possibility that you can have a

catastrophic failure of course this can

happen on any flight

it can happen on the last one as well as

the first one so you just plan as best

you can to take care of all these

eventualities and you get a well trained

crew and you go fly on January 27 1967

the spacecraft was going to be tested

plugs out this made sure that it would

work well set free from cables the test

would be a crucial step towards being

launched on February 21st it should be

straightforward and perfectly safe the

spaceship would not be fueled and its

explosive bolts would not be activated

that afternoon the three pilots climbed

into the module in their suits helpers

did up their straps and linked them to

air and communication

Grissom reported a curious smell and

that had to be checked out before the

test could go ahead after a long wait

the countdown began again the next stage

was to install the hatch which had three

pieces the inner hatch set in the cabin

and two outer hatch elements lay outside

the furthest one was a piece of a cover

for the whole module it couldn't be

fully closed because the one cable to

which the module was still attached ran

underneath it to a power supply but once

it was in place the cabins air was

switched to pure oxygen it became

apparent that communications were poor

with Grissom's complaining how are we

going to get to the moon if we can't

talk between two or three buildings the

outcome was another delay as attempts

were made to fix Grissom's microphone

which was permanently switched to

transmit in the meantime the astronauts

could be heard moving around in the

cockpit and a possible reason soon

became apparent the pilots once more

went through the checklist that guided

their actions as they did so there was a

rise in voltage in one of the AC

connections a few seconds after that an

astronaut tentatively identified later

as Grissom said something and among the

possible words that he used was one

chilling possibility fire suddenly the

horrified ground crew could hear the

sound of the astronauts struggling to

escape from the cabin a voice thought to

be Chafee's confirmed Ivor

we've got a fire in the cockpit

confusion reigned as the men tried to

let ground control know that they were

contending with a serious blaze some

people later said that they'd been able

to see white on the TV connection trying

to get the inner hatch open as the blaze

spread meanwhile the cabin oxygen fueled

what was now an inferno the pressure

rose rapidly and the command modules

walls broke open

now the flame surged out onto the launch

pad the air rush that happened after the

walls of the cabin were breached push

flames into the whole cabin but soon it

also put the fire out as it replaced the

oxygen in the cockpit masses of carbon

dioxide and thick smoke pervaded the

cockpit and as the fire died down large

quantities of soot started to coat the

cooling surfaces the pads workers fought

to get the hatch open but it took them

five minutes once inside they could not

find the astronauts because of the heavy

smoke as the air became clearer a scene

of horror presented itself the three

astronauts bodies were stuck to the

cabin pinned by the melted nylon when

Slayton first looked into the inside of

the cabin he found a confused picture he

told an inquiry about Grissom and white

it was very difficult for me to

determine the exact relationship of

these two bodies they were sort of

jumbled together it seemed clear that

the three had followed procedure but had

not meant any help to them a huge

investigation ensued run under procedure

set after Gemini 8 had failed in flight

in 1966 part of the inquiry involved

breaking the spacecraft down into its

component parts and checking each one

the investigations board also looked at

autopsy reports and interviewed

witnesses eventually reporting in April

1967 the autopsies on the astronauts

discovered that although their bodies

were badly burned they did not cause

their demise they all suffered heart

attacks because of carbon monoxide

poisoning this had happened when the

fire had melted the tubes that fed them

air letting in the toxic gas the Review

Board couldn't figure out for sure where

the fire had begun however it did find a

wire coated in silver whose insulation

had been rubbed off by a door this lay

near a cooling line which had previously

sprung leaks the coolant included

ethylene glycol which could react with

the silver on the wire to create an

outburst of heat

wherever the spark had come from it

found the perfect environment for a

blaze the cabin had been filled with

pure oxygen creating a pressure in

excess of five times more than that of

atmospheric oxygen the flight plan would

have been to lessen the level of oxygen

once in flight to drop the chances of a

blaze while still leaving enough to

breathe the investigation found that

there was no lack of stuff that could

catch on fire the cockpit was almost

carpeted in velcro which would certainly

burn in an all

oxygen environment some of the flammable

material have been taken out when the

astronauts had questioned it but it had

all been put back in before the test

above all when planning the test no one

had seen it as risky consequently the

equipment for use in an emergency wasn't

up for the job of coping with this sort

of blaze there were no firefighters or

rescue workers on site and no medical

personnel handy and the area was

cluttered making access to the command

module difficult the Apollo spacecraft

obviously needed a serious rethink now

it was clear how risky they were no men

would fly in block one spacecraft from

now on and black 2 was given a redesign

in particular the atmosphere in the

cabin would contain much less oxygen

until the crafted reach space astronaut

suits were also rejigged with nylon

which can burn replaced by beta cloth

which is not flammable and very hard to

melt and the inside of the cabin

featured materials they would not take a

flame the hatch on the craft changed to

now opening outward within five seconds

in honor of the Fallen astronauts the

craft was redesignated Apollo 1 the next

as the fourth in the program would be

Apollo 4 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz

Aldrin finally set foot on the moon they

laid an Apollo 1 mission patch on the

satellite in the memory of the crew

later a plaque with their names and

those of others who had given their

lives in the quest to reach the Stars

was placed on the moon