Apollo 1 was to be the first scheduled manned test flight of the new Apollo Command Module and the new Saturn 1B rocket. This was the first step in preparing for an eventual landing on the moon. The Command Module would house 3 astronauts for liftoff and the atmospheric re-entry.
Apollo 1 would test all aspects of the new launch operations including ground tracking and control facilities, plus the performance of the Apollo-Saturn launch assembly. The mission would have lasted up to two weeks, depending on how the spacecraft performed. Compared to previous missions with the Mercury and Gemini programs, the Apollo program involved extremely more complex design and construction. The Command/Service Module spacecraft was also much bigger and than any previous design which resulted in numerous delays and concerns, especially with the astronauts.
Gus Grissom, Apollo 1's commander, understood there were problems with the Command Module. The Apollo Command Module was a complex piece of equipment using new technology. Tedious testing and training were often at odds with each other. During one of the simulations, Gus hung a lemon inside the simulator as an expression of his frustration with the module designers.
On January 27, 1967 during a launch simulation to determine how the spacecraft would operate on internal power only. This test was considered non-hazardous because the fuel tanks had not been loaded and all of the pyrotechnic systems used in the case of an emergency abort had been turned off.
While strapped into their seats inside the Command Module atop the giant Saturn rocket, a voltage fluctuation was noted and 10 seconds later Chaffee said, "Hey..." Three seconds later Grissom shouted "Fire!" Chaffee then reported, "We've got a fire in the cockpit," and White said "Fire in the cockpit!" After 12 seconds Chaffee yelled, "We've got a bad fire! Let's get out! We're burning up! We're on fire!" Only 17 seconds after the first indication by crew of any fire, the transmission ended abruptly as the cabin ruptured after rapidly expanding gases from the fire over-pressurized the Command Module and burst the cabin interior. Although it was Ed White's task to open the hatch in the event of a problem, the inward opening hatch door would never have been able to open because of the increasing interior pressure.
Analysis of the accident showed the intensity of the fire quickly exhausted the oxygen inside the sealed capsule. Although the crew tried to open the hatch, the extreme pressure that had built up made that impossible. The crew lost consciousness and died from smoke inhalation and burns.
The ignition source could not be pin-pointed with certainty. It was thought that an abraded wire may have arced and ignited some flammable material that would have immediately taken on catastrophic proportions.
After the fire, the entire Apollo program was put on hold and a re-design of the Command Module was implemented. The already built Command Modules would only be used in unmanned testing. The faulty hatch design of Apollo 1 had already been redesigned for future missions. The new design would open even under extreme internal pressure and the door opened as one unite outward.
All of the wiring was re-worked and coated with a protective insulation. The astronauts suits was changed from nylon construction to a new fiberglass cloth coated with Teflon to avoid static electricity sparking. All flammable materials inside the cabin were replaced with self-extinguishing versions. Protocols for testing procedures were also changed with increased safety measures in place for all testing.
Launch Pad 34
Virgil I. Grissom
Edward H. White II
Roger B. Chaffee
January 27, 1967. Tragedy struck on the launch pad during a preflight test for Apollo 204 (AS-204), which was scheduled to be the first Apollo manned mission, and would have been launched on February 21, 1967. Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives when a fire swept through the Command Module.