Let’s go back in time 50 years, to January, 1966. It was the middle of the space race, and the United States was halfway through it’s record-setting Gemini Program. After trailing behind the Russians for 8 years, since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, all the way to first Extra-Vehicular Activity on Voskhod 2, in 1965, we were finally ahead. We had conducted our own EVA’s, we had set a flight duration record of 14 days, and we had successfully conductive active rendezvous with another vehicle. Things were looking up for us, and 1966 would prove to be an amazing year, with the final 5 Gemini missions completing with varying levels of success. Regardless, by the end of the program, we had developed and trained in the most critical human elements of a trip to, and landing on, the Moon.
No one knew what was going to happen in January 1967.
During this time, Apollo was ramping up to manned flights as well, having proven that the Saturn booster was a reliable launch vehicle. Saturn was upgraded to carry not only the new S-IVB stage, but also an Apollo Command/Service Module capable of manned flight. Test flights of this new hardware were conducted successfully – two to test the Apollo CSM in Earth Orbit, and one to test how fuel in the S-IVB would behave while the stage was coasting in orbit – a restartable variant of this stage would be used on the much larger Saturn V to sent the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon, so naturally you would want to make sure that the stage and its fuel load would behave how you would expect them to.
Test after test, flight after flight, manned Mercury and Gemini proving how humans would interface with the machines, and how we could indeed carry out the tasks needed. Unmanned flights proving the hardware so that human lives would not be endangered. Such normal test procedures, nothing would seem too out of place, I would imagine.
Indeed, I would imagine quite a bit about the time period of Apollo; I wouldn’t be born until nearly a decade after the last Apollo craft would fly, in 1975. By the time I was born, the Shuttle was already a routine craft (which is it’s own article for tomorrow), but that doesn’t stop me from dreaming of that decade a half century ago where humans left the nest of Earth for the first time. I can imagine me, as a child of that time period, watching a small black and white TV the launches of Mercury, of Gemini. Maybe listening in to radio updates on them… maybe reading newspaper articles, and having mom buy me cereals that, with enough box tops, I could send away for my own model moonship! Maybe my dreams of the period are a little stereotypical, but can you blame a kid born 20 years after all this would have happened?
I do think though about those who worked on all of these programs… from the people who flew the missions to those who bolted the missile to the launch pad, and everyone in between, all have their stories. They all felt this urge of both national pride and a drive to be a part of history by ensuring Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. We had to do, for Kennedy, for America, and for the free world.
Sadly, we would get ahead of ourselves.
After the successful tests of AS-201, 202, and 203, NASA was confident that the Apollo spacecraft was ready for its first manned flight. There were ambitious plans to use the original design known as Block 1, to test the craft in Earth Orbit, while the upcoming Block 2 Apollo, which was designed with varying improvements over Block 1, including the ability to dock with the Lunar Module, for the actual LM test flights. Block 1, designed in a time when the idea of landing directly on the moon was still being considered, was still effectively the same craft that would make the moon flights, so why not test what was already built? The idea sounded good, but there were problems.
Go fever, as it is known; the drive to get the job done without taking time to check that the work being done was of good quality; it had taken over. While Gemini was indeed ambitious, it was still a relatively simple craft that was a logical advancement from the Mercury design of the late 50’s and early 60’s. Apollo however was an entirely new beast, and when you add in the change from a direct landing to the use of a secondary lunar lander, you can only imagine the kinds of chaos that brought up in the design of the craft; this was the reason for the Block 2 and Block 1 variants; at least, this was the most obvious difference of the two.
With it being 1967, we only had a few short years to get all of the equipment tested in actual flight with crews, and we had a schedule to keep. Craft were being built as quickly as they could be, and it seems someone, somewhere, slipped up. You could say the fire burning inside of NASA… of North American Aviation, the makers of the Apollo Command Module… the fire burning inside of the whole of the United States to land on the Moon manifested itself that Friday in January of 1967.
Apollo 1, scheduled for February 21st would be a simple Earth orbital test, much like the flight of Gemini 3 back in 1965, where Gus Grissom and John Young put the new Gemini craft through its paces, much like you would a car when you first buy it. Apollo 1 would be no different, so long as they could even get it off the ground.
This Friday evening was plagued with technical difficulties. Communications between the Apollo spacecraft and the blockhouse, just a few hundred meters away, were incredibly difficult. There was an odd odor in the oxygen line earlier that day, and the crew, and controllers at Launch Complex 34 were not only tired, but from what I have read and heard, they, like the crew, felt odd about the testing being done. I think to that time, and can only imagine that seemingly everyone wanted to just end the tests for that day and come back Monday to start again, but no one wanted to say it – no one wanted to stop, not even the crew.
At 6:31PM came the shouts of fire from the craft. 17 seconds later, after the hull had ruptured from the increased pressure, it was over. Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were gone, having asphyxiated from smoke produced by the combustible materials that filled the poorly designed Apollo craft, burning in the pure oxygen environment with a heat far beyond what we would associate with any normal earthbound flame.
Fire. Saturn would ride on a flame. Mans harnessing of fire ages ago was one of the critical moments in our history, and now, fire stopped us in our tracks. What would we do? Would we be able to make it to the Moon? Would we cancel the whole thing? This was during a test on the ground, not during a flight.
Thinking back, I can imagine myself as child, hearing this news, and wondering our own future in space. I think back to when I first learned of the fire, back when the film Apollo 13 premiered… I had never heard of this event, but I vowed to myself, as a 10 year old, to remember this event, and, while I didn’t understand it as a child, I had taken this event into myself as something to drive me; that I would not forget the legacy of Apollo 1, and that it would drive me in my own personal goals. I had set myself up with personal hero’s who I would never get to meet. I was never alive at the same time as them, but their drive to do the best job they could with something as absolutely amazing and unique as space flight, especially in those early days, would become, ironically, a core to the fire inside that drives me to do the things I do. While nothing I do is as important as what they did, it is still what makes me the person I am, and my love of space flight, and hopes to one day fly myself, is certainly directly driven by their legacy.
Still, how would I handle it as a child in the 60’s? To go from the success of Gemini to the tragedy of Apollo; what would I think? I would say I don’t know, but events in 2003 would teach me firsthand how I would handle such. That’s another story, however, for another year.
The Apollo Program would succeed in landing on the Moon in July 1969. In an odd way, the fire at pad 34 would do more to help the program achieve its goal than any other single event. We focused on success, still, but this time, doing things right. Safety was taken as the greatest goal, for how safe landing on the Moon could be, anyway. We condensed our flight schedule and doubled our efforts in getting to the moon with the time we had left, but not once did we sacrifice safety to accomplish this. In October 1968, Apollo 7 would conduct the flight that Apollo 1 was to make, and less than a year later, we were walking on the Moon. Amazing progress was made since the fire on January 27th, 1967, but no amount of success can change the tragedy of that day.
The fire at pad 34 taught us a valuable lesson, and we never would have another death in Apollo. Even in the incident of Apollo 13 we would be successful in using every element we could on the Apollo spacecraft to bring the crew home safely.
History is doomed to repeat itself, however. Go fever, in conjunction with things becoming routine, the roots of the Apollo 1 fire, would strike NASA again on the cold morning of January 28th, 1986.
Today, look to the sky and remember Gus, Ed, and Roger.
“ad astra per aspera”
Of note, this article was published the exact moment of the fire, 6:31PM Eastern Time, January 27th, 2016.
Below are some video clips on YouTube related to this event. I thought them worth sharing for obvious reasons.