A Major Catastrophe
The mission was originally designated as AS-204. It was the first Apollo mission, with the intent of testing the newly developed Command and Service Module (CSM) that was to be used on future manned lunar flights. The goal of this first Apollo mission was to maintain an earth orbit for 14 days to provide ample time to test the CSM, as well as the ground tracking and Mission Control center's ability to handle communications with the new (soon-to-be) lunar module. It also was to provide a test of how the Saturn IB rocket performed when coupled with the CM-012 Command and Service Module.
Despite it's official designation as AS-204. The astronaut's renamed it “Apollo 1” in June of 1966. A newspaper article also designates AS-204 as “Apollo 1”. Apparently, that name stuck.
Euipment Problems: The mission was plagued by equipment failures and concerns from the beginning. Originally, an early launch date around November of 1966 was discussed, in order to have a joint rendezvous with the last of the Project Gemini launches. This soon proved to be wishful thinking, as the Apollo Command and Service Module continued to experience delays in its engineering.
Engineering Challenges: Once created, the Command and Service Module was much larger, than anything else built so far. Dr. Joseph Shea headed the designing of the spacecraft, which was developed by North American Aviation. North American Aviation continued to produce vital components for the space program, including the famed Space Shuttle. (Eventually, the company became part of Boeing.)
The first Command Module that was delivered in August of 1966 had experienced over 700 changes that were not reflected in the simulator the crew had used for training. And when the crew finally had a chance to review their new spacecraft, they expressed concern over the abundance of flammable material such as nylon netting in the cabin. Dr. Shea understood their concern and issued a request to have the material removed.
Test Pad Catastrophe: During a preflight check-up on January 27, 1966, the crew was in the CSM aboard the un-fueled Saturn rocket. The tests were plagued with major issues with the communication system and the countdown simulation kept being stopped as technicians tried to correct the issue. The goal was to achieve a successful countdown and ensure that all systems continued to function properly once the umbilicals were disconnected for the first Apollo mission.
Around 2:45 PM the hatch was shut, sealing the astronauts inside. The hatch could not be opened from the outside, due to the ratcheting lock systems in place. It could only be opened from the inside after internal cockpit pressure had been lowered.
With the countdown started, and the hatch sealed, pure oxygen was being pumped into the command module, pressurizing the cabin.
Around 6:30 that evening, with the countdown still on hold due to problems with the communication system, Astronaut Chafee could be heard exclaiming, followed afterwards by Command Pilot Grissom saying “fire”. Within 17 seconds the fire had spread throughout the cabin, killing the astronauts and rupturing the cabin as they attempted to open the hatch.
It took ground personnel 5 minutes to open the cabin. By that time the fire was out, and nothing was left but a charred cabin.
It was later determined that the fire was caused by a short circuit in a group of wires that ran in front of and to the left of Command Pilot Grissom's seat.
AS-204's Rocket system was recycled. Undamaged by the explosion, the Saturn IB rocket was later used on Apollo 5. The back-up crew for Apollo 1 went on to fly the first successful manned Apollo mission as Apollo 7.
The Crew of Apollo 1:
Astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom: Selected to be the Command Pilot for Apollo1, he had been a US Air Force Pilot with the rank of Major, and been a command pilot on both Mercury-Redstone 4 and Gemini 3. His flight on the Mercury project made him the second American in space. A graduate from Purdue University with a B.S. In Mechanical Engineering in 1950, he actively helped design the Gemini capsule.
On his Mercury flight, Astronaut Grissom was accused of blowing his hatch doors immediatly upon splash-dow, causing the capsule to sink. Later, NASA determined that the hatch door had malfunctioned, blowing automatically. In 1999 his Mercury capsule was retrieved from the ocean floor by Curt Newport, an underwater salvage expert.
At his death he left a wife and two sons, Scott and Mark, who went on to graduate from Purdue University, like their father. Their mother, who never received any compensation for Gus's death, pursued NASA for a settlement, which helped pay for the children's schooling, and other financial needs.
Astronaut Edward H. White, II: Designated as the Senior Pilot on the Apollo 1 mission, White had graduated from West Point and entered the Air force flying school. Achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, he went on to obtain his Master's of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Michigan.
Astronaut White was part of the second group of men to be selected to be astronauts. He piloted the Gemini 4 mission, and became the first person to “walk” in space. He left a wife, a son and a daughter behind at his death.
Astronaut Roger Bruce Chaffee: The youngest member of the team, the Apollo 1 Mission was to be his first flight into outer-space. He also had graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor's of Science in Aeronautical Engineering. He Naval ROTC scholarship to pay for his college, and eventually became a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy. He also attended the Air Force Institute of Technology where he worked on his Masters of Science in Reliability.
He left behind a wife, a daughter, and a son at his death.
To remember his sacrifice, the museum in his hometown of Grand-Rapids Michigan, built a planetarium in his name.
Manned Apollo Missions were ultimately put on hold for 20 months due to this accident. The Command Modules were redesigned to allow for safer exiting, and many of the problematic areas were resolved in this time. Ultimately, the sacrifice of these men lead to countless successful missions, and allowed America to be the first nation to reach the moon.