if we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.
—Astronaut Gus Grissom, 1965
I knew it must be serious . . . . . . I think I was down my grand-parents house and the old black and white television was on, sitting on its special table in the corner. We weren’t taking much notice of it, or at least I wasn’t. But then all the chattering stopped and I looked up from whatever it was that I was doing and noticed everyone was quiet and looking at the TV set.
On screen was one of the TV news presenters and under his image on the screen was the word ‘News Flash’ or something like that. The next thing that happened was that the TV was going ‘live’ to one of its reporters at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where reports were coming in indicating that a serious accident had occurred.
There then appeared a rather grainy satellite image of the reporter who was talking about a fire. I noticed that way in the background, a tall gantry type structure with a lot of flashing lights. The reporter looked grim faced and serious. I knew that that the situation was bad because no one was talking and that the early evening news which we had been watching, had been interrupted to allow for this live satellite feed about this fire.
You will have to excuse me for being a little imprecise and hazy with these recollections. The date that I am trying to recollect was January 27th 1967, I was then aged 10 years old; ‘The Beatles’ were still together; the England football team were World Champions; the war in Vietnam was escalating and for me, the real exciting thing was that the Americans and Russians were racing each other to land a man on The Moon.
Nobody ever believed that manned spaceflight was a risk-free business to be in
The six years separating the first human to fly in space – the Russian Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin on 12th April 1961 – to this date on which I referring, 27th January 1967 had been a roller-coaster ride and not without its drama. But nobody had ever thought that deaths would occur within a spacecraft on the launch pad, without even its main engine being ignited and during one of the many tests that both astronauts and space vehicle had been subjected to.
Astronauts had lost their lives during training in flying accidents
. . . but never whilst strapped into their spacecraft whilst undergoing training. There had been three deaths involving astronauts prior to the Apollo 1 launch pad fire. The first to lose his life was that of Theodore Freeman. Prior to becoming an astronaut, he was a captain in the United States Air Force. He lost his life whilst flying T-38 training jet, on October 31st, 1964. This marked him out as becoming the first American astronaut to lose his life whilst being assigned to NASA.
The second and third astronauts to lose their lives, whilst ctively engaged in carrying out their duties for NASA were Elliot See and Charles Bassett on February 28, 1966. They were once again flying in a T38 training aircraft en-route from Ellington AFB, Houston, Texas to the McDonnell Aircraft Company near St. Louis, Missouri. They were due to land at Lambert Field, which was adjacent to Building 101 where their Gemini Spacecraft where it was being manufactured and tested. See was to be the Commander of their forthcoming Gemini 9 spaceflight with Basset the Pilot. By the time they were coming in for a landing at McDonnell Douglas facility, it was in heavily overcast weather and they did not have a clear view of the runway. They made one approach and just prior to landing, pulled up to go round again for a further attempt. It whilst on their second approach that they misjudged the landing completely and whilst trying to pull up, ironically flew into the roof of the same building in which their spacecraft was being worked upon. They both were killed instantly.
After this accident, NASA changed the policy as to how astronauts travelled whilst carrying out administration business. Never again would both prime crew fly in the same aircraft. This accident saw the deaths of both the mission Commander and his Pilot. In future, all crew would travel either on a commercial flight or if this proved not possible, then they could fly using the T38 training aircraft, but not together in the same plane.
Clifton Curtis ‘C.C.’ Williams was another NASA astronaut who lost his life due to a mechanical failure in a NASA T-38 training aircraft. His aircraft crashed after departing Patrick Air Force Base whilst flying over Tallahassee in Florida On October 5th, 1967. Williams was a Naval Aviator and a Major in the United States Marine Corps and up until his tragic accident, had never flowing in space. He had however, served as backup pilot for the Gemini 10 mission, which launched in July 1966 and was commanded by John Young, with Mike Collins as his spacecraft pilot. Following this mission he was selected to be the lunar module pilot for an Apollo mission to the moon and commanded by Pete Conrad. Following C. C. Williams’ death, Alan Bean became lunar module pilot for Conrad’s mission, which ended up being Apollo 12, the second lunar landing in November 1969.
The period of time between February 1966 and October 1967 was an awful time for NASA and its astronaut Corp
. . . with the inclusion of the thee man Apollo 1 Crew and with the inclusion of Elliott See, Charles Bass tt and the last of this group to lose his life – CC Williams – that was a total of six who lost their lives. This was a high attrition rate, but at least not lost in whilst in space itself. The nearest they were to come to that was on the Gemini 8 flight which was commanded by Neil Armstrong with Dave Scott as his pilot the precious year in March 1966. Up until the actual docking the mission had been a total success. After the successful docking, the combined spacecraft started to develop some oscillations which the two astronauts could not control. Thinking that perhaps one of the attitude control thrusters on the Agena target vehicle may not have shutdown, they decided to separate from the vehicle. Upon separation the oscillations then started to develop into an increasingly unstable spinning motion. Both the astronauts tried to bring the spin under control using the Gemini 8 reaction control system. This failed and the spin rate gradually got to the point whereby they were completing one revolution per second. Both astronauts were beginning to experience tunnel vision and the stroboscopic effect of the sunlight coming through the windows, if allowed could resulted in them blacking out.
Armstrong and Scott decided to switch off the reaction control system and engage the re try control system. This allowed them to reduce the spin rate and committed them to terminate the mission and manually fly the spacecraft for an abort from orbit and an unscheduled splashdown in the Indian Ocean. All this occurred when they were out of direct radio control from mission control in Houston, Texas. However, the crew had managed a successful first rendezvous and docking with an Agena target vehicle and had proved the value of having men onboard a spacecraft. They had successfully worked out that the reaction control system had one thruster stuck on and could not switch it off. By disengaging this system and engaging the re-entry control system, it managed to stop the spin, but it committed them to an early termination of the mission but saving their lives by making this decision. Armstrong and Scott definitely were made of the ‘Right Stuff’.
The next emergency of this magnitude would be during the Apollo 13 flight in 1970. Once again, the lives of three Apollo crew were nearly lost during a space flight. However, once again the courage of the three astronauts and the brilliance and dedication of the Mission Control team, working in tandem with the astronauts turned a potential disaster into a triumph of collaboration and innovation, saving the lives of three precious lives aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft.
NASA’s greatest fear was losing a crew whilst in space or during in a lunar landing mission
. . . in the full glare of the spotlight of a watching media and public. A major difference between the American and Soviet Manned Spaceflight programs was that the Russians received direct funding from Their centralized form of government. NASA’s funding had to approved annually from Congress and relied on successfully lobbying of senators and congressmen. All the time the NASA continued delivering one success after another and contracts were being awarded via successful tenders to the constituencies of their friendly congress and senators members, then the funding would continue. Good publicity would help towards the smooth continuation of the annual funding round. A disaster – such as the Apollo 1 fire and further into the future, the loss of the two Space Shuttle would mean the spotlight and forensic spotlight of inquiries and appearing before a congressional enquiry, and the possibility of a loss of funding.
The loss of any life – be it in space or on Earth – is a tragedy and after investigating thoroughly the reasons why this loss of life has occurred, lessons are learned and something positive comes out of the tragedy. So when President Dwight D. Eisenhower eventually acceded to the clamor of America facing off with the then Soviet Union, he insisted on the original job specification for the post of Astronaut, that one important requirement is that they applicants been drawn from the military and preferably that they have some form of Test Pilot experience.
NASA required that these test pilots also had plenty of flight experience and that they be educated at degree level, preferably from an aeronautical and engineering disciplines. In later the later years, applicants perhaps having studied the skills of rendezvous and space navigation would be an advantage as these were going to be the skills that would have to be mastered as NASA decided that to opt for the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous mode for the Apollo program.
These were a very high set of skills that they were looking for and when you finally see who were selected for the original ‘Mercury 7’, you can understand how unique and special these men were. But also, you can also see why they they also required test pilots. Being a test pilot pretty much ruled you out of ever getting private life assurance. When you elected to become a test pilot, you had to have supreme confidence in your flying skills and accept the fact that because of the job requirements, your life could be forfeited because of flaws in the aircrafts design, a mishap by some other person in setting up the aircraft, prior to your getting into fly it, or a minute lapse of your concentration of miscalculation on your part.
This is why Eisenhower wanted the original Mercury 7 to come from this very rare breed of men. They new the risks and accepted them as part of job, as did their families as well
Whilst spaceflight was never going to be a ‘safe’ business and both NASA and the astronauts would do all they could do to prevent unnecessary loss of life, safety could never be guaranteed. As test pilots, they willingly accepted these risks. But because of the rareness of the qualities that they had which had ultimately led them to becoming members of this elite fraternity, NASA could also not afford to lose these special men unecessarily. Therefore everything that could be learned from the various investigation boards would need to be implemented so as to minimise these risks.
This was never to be more exemplified when after reading the reports of of what went wrong in the design, manufacture and final craft that was ultimately delivered by North American for NASA to Launch Complex 34 at the John F. Kennedy Space Center for that fateful test on the 27th January 1967. The drive to achieve John F. Kennedy’s target of ‘landing a man upon The Moon and returning him safely before this decade is out,’ was driving both NASA and North American to change the specifications and these design changes ultimately ended up with slippages in the deadlines and shortcuts being taken at the expense of safety shoddy workmanship in an effort to keep up with the looming deadline that President John F. Kennedy had set the nation.
It was not because these poor decisions were being made on purpose, after all, each new piece of electronics, computers, wiring and the sheer complexity of the systems that were being drawn together to build a Saturn V, a Apollo Command and Service Module and Lunar Module, were unique and were one of a kind. Both NASA and North American and Grumman – the manufacturers of the Lunar Module – were constantly at war with one another. According to the manufacturers NASA was constantly asking for changes and amendments made to the original specifications and NASA was complaining to them that they were never meeting agreed key target dates. This was the toxic atmosphere that the Apollo 1 crew found themselves immersed in and as the astronauts were representing the astronaut corp, they had an eye on trying to be proactive and positive in helping keep there Command Module on schedule, yet also ensure that it was a safe vehicle for them and those other crews that would follow them. There Apollo 1 space craft was to be the first to be launched and would be the template for all those that followed. There say so would be the final arbiter as to whether these Command Modules would be fit for the purpose of taking a manned mission into space safely and returning them.
This Apollo 1 crew were special and were indeed skilled, dedicated and highly qualified for the task of ensuring that Apollo Command Module was fit for purpose, safe and met the stringent design briefs that both NASA and the astronauts themselves required of the vehicle and a North American. These men were not only highly skilled and motivated test pilots and as such, at the top of their profession but were also graduate educated in the disciplines required for them to work and exchange highly opinions with the scientists and engineers who were also working on this project.
After all Virgil Grissom was one of the original Mercury 7 and the second American to fly in space. He was also then selected to command the first manned Gemini flight – Gemini 3 – so he had been through a similar design and acceptance procedure as that which they were experiencing with North American with the manufacturers of the Gemini space vehicle – McDonnell. It was probably because of that experience and the unmitigated success of the ensuing Gemini program, that he had once again been selected for to be the commander of Apollo 1 and repeat that process of nursing and chivvying this vehicie to a successful first flight. He was a highly intelligent and motivated individual and it was no coincidence that he was seen as a competent and safe pair of hands.
Edward White flew on the second manned two-man Gemini mission – Gemini IV. The commander of this flight was James McDivitt and it was during this flight that Ed White was to be the first American to walk in space. Once again, a highly motivated and supremely competent individual, entirely suited to be one of the three members of this important mission.
Then there was Roger Chaffee. This was to be his first flight in space. But don’t let that lack of space flight experience fool you. It was widely known throughout the astronaut corp and by those teaching and mentoring them, that he was viewed as being highly intelligent and well respected by both his peers and throughout the Manned Space Flight Center as being one of the brightest and best. He was also well liked not only because of these qualities but as a person.
Chaffee was one of the third group of astronauts selected by NASA in October 1963. In addition to participating in the overall training program, he was also tasked with working on flight control communications systems, instrumentation systems, and attitude and translation control systems in the Apollo Branch of the Astronaut office. On March 21, 1966, he was selected as one of the pilots for the AS-204 mission, the first 3-man Apollo flight.
The Apollo 1 fire was a ‘watershed’ moment for NASA, the Apollo programme and it’s contractors. That an accident was bound to happen at some point during this incredible expansion of the manned spaceflight, was inevitable with the benefit of hindsight and viewing the events at the time and why and how things happened leading up to the event. When you consider just what was happening during the early 1960’s right up to the fire, it is incredible. Even as America’s first manned space programme – Mercury was drawing to a spectacular conclusion with the Gordon Coopers triumphant ‘Faith 7’ flight, work was well underway with the Gemini space vehicle and the support and launch facilities that would be required to launch it and its Titan launch vehicle at the then named Cape Canaveral launch site at Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida. Work was well in hand for an all new Mission Control Center at the new Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, Texas. The Gemini space vehicle would be launched atop of the United Air Force Titan launch vehicle. So the only research and development required would be the removal of the warhead and any specialised adaptation for integrating the Gemini space vehicle to it.
So NASA had the building of the new Manned Spaceflight Center and Mission Control being carried out in Houston; the next generation space vehicle – Gemini – being developed and constructed by McDonnel in St. Louis. The Apollo Command Module was being constructed by North American at their Downey facility in California. The huge Saturn IB and Saturn V was being developed, constructed and tested at the Marshall Space Flight Center by Verner Von Braun and his team in Huntsville and then there was the all new Launch Complex 39 being constructed on Merritt Island, Florida where these new generation of manned space vehicles would ultimately be launched for the Moon landing programme. Last but by no means least was the Lunar Module. This unique vehicle – the first craft ever to be built to solely fly in space and also land on the Moon, was being constructed by the Grumman Aircraft Company at their Bethpage facility in New York.
When you look at this list of what was taking place, most of it in tandem, it represented a huge logistical and project management challenge. All of what is described took into account the physical hardware side of what would be required to support these programmes. Then their was the design of things such as a whole new generation of Space Suits and life support systems that would allow an astronaut to walk in space and work usefully on the surface of the Moon. Then their was the nascent birth of computers that would be small and powerful enough to be integrated into the rest of the instrumentation inside both the Gemini, Apollo Command Module and the Lunar Module.
The American manned spaceflight programme would at its height involve contracts being placed out to virtually every high tech company in the United States
Not just for the hardware but also for equipment such as computers, space suits, medical research etc. Then there was the support that would be required by the armed services for services such as lunar cartography, global communications and the recovery of the returning space vehicles
There was also the small problem of developing a deep space network for the control, monitoring and navigation of space craft both in Earth orbit and for the Lunar Orbit and surface operations. When looking at all of these dependancies, it is hardly surprising that with the benefit of hindsight – that some of the decisions and things that got overlooked or ignored seem ludicrous now.
Apollo at its peak was employing over 400,000 people directly and indirectly when including all of the contractors. That is an incredible statistic. Whole new sciences and technologies would have to be built from the ground upwards to support and eventually place a man on the Moon. This project was the largest and most complex ever undertaken outside of something such as the Second World War and projects such as the Manhatten Project which developed, constructed and tested the Atomic Bomb. It is hardly surprising in retrospect that something such as that which led to the loss of the crew of Apollo 1 occurred.
After the fire in January 1967, no further manned spaceflights occurred until October 1967 with the subsequent launch of the Apollo 7 Command and Service Module which departed atop of a Saturn IB spacecraft from the very same Launch Complex 34, where the Apollo I astronauts lost their lives nearly two years earlier. The crew consisted of the Commander, Walter Schirra – a Mercury 7 and Gemini veteran was the man tasked with taking a whole new completely re-designed Command Module into a two week shakedown in Earth orbit. Accompanying him would be two first time astronauts – Walter Cunningham and Don Eisle.
This was to prove a difficult and tense mission. Schirra went into space with a head cold which very soon, spread to the other two members of the crew.
Although the interior of the new Apollo Command Module was much larger than its Gemini and Mercury predecessor’s, thus allowing the crew a lot more space to move around and experience zero gravity, the head cold soon spread to the other two crew members and for a while, relations between the crew and Mission Control deteriorated.
So much so, that when requested to mount the new onboard TV camera, thus allowing for the first time, live TV coverage of the crew in-orbit, Schirra refused to remove it from storage and switch it on. He felt that since the Apollo 7 spacecraft had successfully reached Earth orbit, mission control had then started to add two extra burns of the SPS main engine, a urine dump and now mount and activate the onboard black and white TV.
He refused to do so, stating that they were testing a whole new spacecraft and he was not prepared to placate Mission Control and an expectant nation the novelty of live TV coverage at this point of the mission. For a while, this set the tone for interactions between the crew and Mission Control. So much so that there was talk of an orbital ‘Mutiny’ occurring. For Schirra, he really did not care what Mission Control or NASA thought of his demeanor or actions.
He had stated prior to the launch, that this was to be his last mission. As for Cunningham and Eisele, this was to prove to be their one and only mission. It was suggested that the actions of the crew had so soured relations between the individual crew members and Mission Control, that this was their ‘payback’. It would also be a shot across the astronaut corps bows that should you decide to cause problems or be uncooperative with regard to requests from Mission Control, your careers could become very short-lived as an astronaut.
In fairness to the Apollo 7 crew, once the head colds had receded and because of the 11 day duration of the mission, they soon become very amenable and proved to be naturals in front of the camera. The live TV coverages were extremely successful and once again, put NASA firmly front and center in the affections of the American public who NASA was very much aware, paying for these space extravaganzas with their hard earned tax dollars. In the end, Schirra and his crew proved to be naturals in front of the TV cameras and they were very popular. But by then, the damage had be done between this particular crew and NASA’s management.
Schirra was speaking as a test pilot when he tried to remind NASA that this was a whole new space vehicle and whilst all that was required of them during this mission was to ensure that everything worked as well as possible and to ensure that all the changes that had been made to remedy the problems that had led to the Apollo 1 fire had been implemented and if other, unexpected problems were to appear, then as the crew were all experienced test pilots, they were to document them and then present them in their debriefing upon a safe return to Earth.
During the intervening period between the fire and the launch of Apollo 7, there was an extensive investigation which resulted in NASA having to sit in front of hostile congress who initially were
. . . intent on clipping their wings and seeing heads roll. The most hostile was Senator Walter Mondale. Ultimately it was an impassioned and heartfelt plea by Astronaut Frank Borman, who had been seconded by NASA to act as the Astronaut Office’s representative on the Board of Enquiry. His impassioned plea to accept that mistakes had been made and that they only way to remedy them was to allow NASA and the astronauts to put them right and as a permanent living memorial to the crew of Apollo 1 – who had lost their lives in the pursuance of fulfilling the pledge of President John F. Kennedy – they move forward by implementing in full the report of the board of enquiry and ultimately put an American on the Moon.
The congressional enquiry was one over and NASA were allowed to put the problems right and move forward with the Apollo Programme. Their were to be victims of the of enquiry. Joe Shea, Deputy Director of The Office of Manned Spaceflight suffered a severe mental breakdown after the Apollo 1 Fire. He was moved to another department of NASA and then eventually left to work for Raytheon. The chief engineer responsible at the Apollo Command Module manufacturers – North American – Harrison Storms was also removed from any further direct involvement in the Apollo program.
In conclusion, what follows is a description as to what the investigation board summarised upon reviewing the events which led up to and concluded on that tragic day in January 1967.
The words that follow are not my own and are taken from the Wikipedia entry of the Apollo 1 fire. I would lot to acknowledge this here and give them the full credit for the text that follows.
When designing the Mercury spacecraft, NASA had considered using a nitrogen/oxygen mixture to reduce the fire risk near launch, but rejected it based on two considerations. First, nitrogen used with the in-flight pressure reduction carried the clear risk of decompression sickness (known as “the bends”). But the decision to eliminate the use of any gas but oxygen was crystalized when a serious accident occurred on April 21, 1960, in which McDonnell Aircraft test pilot G.B. North passed out and was seriously injured when testing a Mercury cabin / spacesuit atmosphere system in a vacuum chamber. The problem was found to be nitrogen-rich (oxygen-poor) air leaking from the cabin into his spacesuit feed. North American Aviation had suggested using an oxygen/nitrogen mixture for Apollo, but NASA overruled this. The pure oxygen design also carried the benefit of saving weight, by eliminating the need for nitrogen tanks.
They determined that the fire most likely started near the floor in the lower left section of the cabin, close to the Environmental Control Unit. It spread from the left wall of the cabin to the right, with the floor being affected only briefly. The engulfed area on the left contained the manual depressurization valve which would have been used to vent the cabin atmosphere to the outside. Consequently, the astronauts were unable to reach it, however this was in any case insufficient to prevent heat and pressure buildup.
The review board cited “many types and classes of combustible material” close to ignition sources. The NASA crew systems department had installed 34 square feet (3.2 m2) of Velcro throughout the spacecraft, almost like carpeting. This Velcro was found to be flammable in a high-pressure 100% oxygen environment. Up to 70 pounds of other non-metallic flammable materials had also crept into the design.
Buzz Aldrin states in his book Men From Earth that the flammable material had been removed (per the crew’s August 19 complaints and Joseph Shea’s order), but was replaced prior to the August 26 delivery to Cape Kennedy.
The plugs-out test had been run to simulate the launch procedure, with the cabin pressurized with pure oxygen at the nominal pre-launch level of 16.7 psi (1.15 bar), 2 psi above standard sea level atmospheric pressure. This is more than five times the 3 psi partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere, and provides an environment in which materials not normally considered highly flammable will burst into flame.
The high-pressure oxygen atmosphere was consistent with that used in the Mercury and Gemini programs. The pressure before launch was deliberately greater than ambient in order to drive out the nitrogen-containing air and replace it with pure oxygen. After liftoff, the pressure would have been reduced to the in-flight level of 5 psi (0.34 bar), providing sufficient oxygen for the astronauts to breathe while reducing the fire risk. The Apollo 1 crew had tested this procedure with their spacecraft in the Operations and Checkout Building altitude (vacuum) chamber on October 18 and 19, 1966, and the backup crew of Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham had repeated it on December 30.