‘Fire! We’ve Got a Fire in the Cockpit!’

On this date in 1967, a few ticks past 6:31 p.m. EST, a blowtorch fire erupted in the crew cabin of the Apollo 1 spacecraft during a launch pad test at Cape Canaveral, Florida, The spacecraft was pressurized with pure oxygen, the cockpit filled with flammable materials. All it took was a spark, almost certainly originating in faulty, exposed wiring.

The astronauts never had a chance.

Commander Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and crew members Edward H. White, Jr., and Roger B. Chaffee were asphyxiated despite struggling to the last to remove a heavy cork-like inner hatch. A fire was the last thing anyone expected during what was considered a “routine” test. It was anything but. Years of poor engineering decisions came home to roost on that fateful Friday evening.

The Apollo 1 tragedy would prove to be a critical turning point in the Space Race, forcing NASA to take a long, hard look at itself and the way it operated. A series of miscalculations beginning in the early 1960s had doomed the crew of the maiden Apollo flight.

Paradoxically, a preventable tragedy also ensured that the United States would reach the moon by the end of the decade as it had publicly proclaimed. The United States would not have reached the moon without the sacrifice of Grissom, White and Chaffee. The Apollo spaceship was completely overhauled, carrying 24 humans to the moon.

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Commander Gus Grissom leads his crew across a catwalk connecting the Pad 34 service tower to his Apollo 1 spacecraft on the morning of a fateful “plugs-out” test on January 27, 1967. (Source: NASA)

A central tenet of the early days of manned spaceflight was the assumption of risk while at the same time doing everything possible to limit it. This is how test pilots worked, and Gus Grissom was among the best military test pilots and aeronautical engineers before becoming one of the original Mercury astronauts. Grissom was among those who decided the rewards of spaceflight were worth the risk.

That calculated risk is the central theme of my forthcoming biography of Gus Grissom, the first human to fly twice in space. The stories of Glenn, Armstrong and the other heroes deemed to possess “The Right Stuff” are well known. Less well known are the lasting contributions and ultimate sacrifice made by Gus Grissom to reach another world. As the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire approaches, we seek to tell the full story of the life and career of a determined astronaut who shunned the limelight while laying the foundation for visiting another world.

 

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