Apollo 1 is the official name that was retroactively given to the never-flown Apollo/Saturn 204 (AS-204) mission. Its command module (CM-012) was destroyed by fire during a test and training exercise on January 27 1967 at Pad 34 (Launch Complex 34, Cape Canaveral, then known as Cape Kennedy) atop a Saturn IB rocket. The crew aboard were the astronauts selected for the first manned Apollo program mission: Command Pilot Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee. All three died in the fire.
Although the ignition source of the fire was never conclusively identified, the astronauts' deaths were attributed to a wide range of lethal design hazards in the early Apollo command module. Among these were the use of a high-pressure 100 percent-oxygen atmosphere for the test, wiring and plumbing flaws, inflammable materials in the cockpit, an inward-opening hatch that would not open in this kind of an emergency and the flight suits worn by the astronauts.
This crew flew on Apollo 9.
This crew flew on Apollo 7.
Apollo 1 was meant to be followed by two more Apollo flights in the summer and late autumn of 1967. The first of these would have launched a Block II Apollo CSM on a Saturn 1B along with an unmanned LM on a second Saturn 1B, both ascending to low earth orbit for a CSM-LM rendezvous and docking. The second flight would have launched the CSM and LM together on a Saturn V to high earth orbit. Both of these missions were canceled following the Apollo 1 fire, but their mission objectives were later carried out in somewhat different ways by Apollo 7, Apollo 8 and Apollo 9).
The AS-204 mission was scheduled for the first quarter of 1967, having already missed a target date for the last quarter of 1966. The flight was to test "launch operations, ground tracking and control facilities and the performance of the Apollo-Saturn launch assembly" and would have lasted up to two weeks, depending on how the spacecraft performed. Grissom resolved to keep AS-204 in orbit for a full 14 days if there was any way to do so.
The Apollo command module was much bigger and far more complex than any previously implemented spacecraft design. The CM was built by North American Aviation, which had originally suggested the hatch open outward and carry explosive bolts in case of emergency. NASA didn't agree, arguing the hatch could be accidentally opened (what led to Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft sinking during splashdown recovery operations). Before the fire, astronauts successfully lobbied for an outward-opening hatch on future command modules, but NASA subsequently claimed the astronauts were thinking about ease of exit and entry for spacewalks (along with getting out of the CM after splashdown) rather than safety.
North American Aviation also suggested the cabin atmosphere be an oxygen/nitrogen mixture as on the earth's surface. NASA objected, citing heightened risks such as catastrophic decompression sickness and mismanagement of nitrogen levels, which could cause the astronauts to pass out and die. NASA officials asserted a pure oxygen atmosphere had been used without incident in the Mercury and Gemini programs so it would be safe for use on Apollo. Also, a pure oxygen design saved weight.
CM-012 was delivered to NASA with dozens of acknowledged but unresolved flaws. The crew expressed serious concerns about fire hazards and other problems (Grissom even famously took a lemon from a tree by his house, telling his wife Betty, "I'm going to hang it on that spacecraft"). The January 27, 1967 launch simulation, officially considered not hazardous, was a "plugs-out" test to determine whether the Apollo spacecraft would operate nominally on internal power while detached from all cables and umbilicals. There was hope that if the spacecraft passed this and subsequent tests it would be ready to fly on February 21, 1967.
Further problems included episodes of high oxygen flow apparently linked to movements by the astronauts in their flightsuits. There were also faulty communications between the crew, the control room, the operations and checkout building and the complex 34 blockhouse. "How are we going to get to the moon if we can't talk between three buildings?" Grissom complained in frustration over the communication loop. This put the launch simulation on hold again at 5:40. Most countdown functions had been successfully completed by 6:20 but the countdown was still holding at T minus 10 minutes at 6:30 with all cables and umbilicals still attached to the command module while attempts were made to fix the communication problem.
The crew members were reclining in their horizontal couches, running through a checklist when a voltage transient was recorded at 6:30:54 (23:30:54 GMT). Ten seconds later (at 6:31:04) Chaffee said, "Hey..." Scuffling sounds followed for three seconds before Grissom shouted "Fire!" Chaffee then reported, "We've got a fire in the cockpit," and White said "Fire in the cockpit!"
After nearly ten seconds of frenetic movement noises Chaffee yelled, "We've got a bad fire! Let's get out! We're burning up! We're on fire! Get us out of here! Some witnesses said they saw Ed White on the television monitors, reaching for the hatch release handle as flames in the cabin spread from left to right and licked the window. Only 17 seconds after the first indication by crew of any fire, the transmission ended abruptly at 6:31:21 with a scream of pain as the cabin ruptured after rapidly expanding gases from the fire overpressurized the CM to 29 psi.
Toxic smoke from the leaking command module, along with malfunctioning gas masks, slowed down the ground crew trying to rescue them. There were fears the whole launch complex might become engulfed by flames. It took five minutes to open the hatch, a layered array of three hatches with many ratchets. By this time the fire in the command module had gone out. Although the cabin lights had remained lit the ground crew was at first unable to find the astronauts. As the smoke cleared they found the bodies but were not able to remove them. The fire had melted the astronauts' nylon space suits along with some of the air lines connecting them to the cabin's life-support systems. Grissom's body was found lying mostly on the deck. His and White's suits were fused together. The body of Ed White (who mission protocol had tasked with opening the hatch) was lying back in his center couch. White would not have been able to open the inward-opening hatch because internal pressure had risen too high. Chaffee's job was to shut down the spacecraft systems and maintain communications with ground control. His body was still strapped into the right-hand seat.
To their dismay, the review board found the documentation for CM-012 so lacking that they were at times unable to determine what had been installed in the spacecraft or what was in it at the time of the accident.
The review board noted a silver-plated copper wire running through an environmental control unit near the command module pilot's couch which had become stripped of its Teflon insulation and abraded by repeated opening and closing of a small access door. This weak point in the wiring also ran near a junction in an ethylene glycol/water cooling line which was known to be prone to leaks. The electrolysis of ethylene glycol solution with the silver anode was a notable hazard which could cause a violent exothermic reaction, igniting the ethylene glycol mixture in the CM's corrosive test atmosphere of pure, high-pressure oxygen.
The panel cited how the NASA crew systems department had installed of fuzzy Velcro throughout the spacecraft, almost like carpeting. This velcro was found to be explosive in a high-pressure 100% oxygen environment. Up to 70 pounds of other non-metallic flammable materials had crept into the design.
In 1968 a team of MIT physicists went to Cape Kennedy and performed a static discharge test in the Apollo-8 spacecraft while it was being prepared for launch. With an electroscope, they measured the approximate energy of static discharges caused by a test crew dressed in nylon flight pressure suits and reclining on the nylon flight seats. The MIT investigators found sufficient energy for ignition discharged repeatedly when crewmembers shifted in their seats and then touched the spacecraft's aluminum panels.
The ignition source for the fire was never determined.
Much more thorough protocols were implemented for documenting spacecraft construction and maintenance. By all accounts the design changes were successful and worth the subsequent delay of almost 21 months before the project's successful first launch and completion of a manned mission, Apollo 7. Three years later when Apollo 13 executed an emergency shutdown of the command module after a crippling and life-threatening explosion in the service module while crossing trans-lunar space, water condensation gathered for four days but did not cause any short-outs or fatal sparks when the spacecraft was powered up again minutes before reentry. Moreover, documentation on the Apollo 13 spacecraft was so complete, investigators were able to reconstruct the cause of the explosion from telemetry, construction, maintenance and photographic records without ever examining the service module itself.
An Apollo 1 mission patch was left on the moon's surface during the first manned lunar landing by Apollo 11.
Launch Complex 34 was subsequently used only for the launch of Apollo 7 and later dismantled but the launch platform remains at the site along with a few other concrete and steel-reinforced structures. The launch platform bears two plaques noting the tragedy.
One reads: LAUNCH COMPLEX 34, Friday, 27 January 1967, 1831 Hours. Dedicated to the living memory of the crew of the Apollo 1: USAF. Lt. Colonel Virgil I. Grissom, USAF. 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 reads: 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
In January 2005 three granite benches built by a college classmate of one of the astronauts, one for each member of the crew, were installed at the site.
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 on Cape Canaveral.
Apollo 1's (AS-204) Saturn IB rocket was taken down from Launch Complex 34, later reassembled at Launch Complex 37B and used to launch the Apollo 5 LM-1 into earth orbit for the first Lunar Module test mission.