Summary of Events
The Apollo Program
January 27, 1967
Tragedy struck on the launch pad during a preflight test for Apollo 204, scheduled to be the first Apollo manned mission. It would have been launched on February 21, 1967, but Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives when a fire swept through the Command Module (CM).
The astronauts entered the Apollo at 1:00 p.m., Friday, 27 January 1967. Problems immediately arose. The first problem occurred when Gus Grissom entered into the spacecraft and hooked up to his oxygen supply from the spacecraft. He described a strange odor in the spacesuit loop as a "sour smell". The crew stopped to take a sample of the suit loop, and after discussion with Grissom decided to continue the test.
The next problem was a high oxygen flow indication which periodically triggered the master alarm. The men discussed this matter with environmental control system personnel, who believed the high flow resulted from movement of the crew. The matter was not really resolved.
A third serious problem arose in communications. At first, faulty communications seemed to exist solely between Command Pilot Grissom and the control room. The crew made adjustments. Later, the difficulty extended to include communications between the operations and checkout building and the blockhouse at complex 34.
This failure in communications forced a hold of the countdown at 5:40 p.m. By 6:31 the test conductors were about ready to pick up the count when ground instruments showed an unexplained rise in the oxygen flow into the spacesuits. One of the crew, presumably Grissom, moved slightly.
Four seconds later, an astronaut, probably Chaffee, announced almost casually over the intercom: "Fire, I smell fire." Two seconds later, Astronaut White's voice was more insistent: "Fire in the cockpit."
Procedures for emergency escape called for a minimum of 90 seconds. But in practice the crew had never accomplished the routines in the minimum time. Grissom had to lower White's headrest so White could reach above and behind his left shoulder to actuate a ratchet-type device that would release the first of series of latches. According to one source, White had actually made part of a full turn with the ratchet before he was overcome by smoke.
Spacecraft technicians ran towards the sealed Apollo, but before they could reach it, the command module ruptured. Flame and thick black clouds of smoke billowed out, filling the room. Now a new danger arose. Many feared that the fire might set off the launch escape system atop Apollo. This, in turn, could ignite the entire service structure. Instinct told the men to get out while they could. Many did so, but others tried to rescue the astronauts.
The intense heat and dense smoke drove one after another back, but finally they succeeded. Unfortunately, it was too late. The astronauts were dead. Firemen arrived within three minutes of the hatch opening, doctors soon thereafter. A medical board determined that the astronauts died of carbon monoxide asphyxia, with thermal burns as contributing causes. The board could not say how much of the burns came after the three had died. Fire had destroyed 70% of Grissom's spacesuit, 20% of White's and 15% of Chaffee's. Doctors treated 27 men for smoke inhalation. Two were hospitalized.
After removal of the bodies, NASA impounded everything at launch complex 34. On 3 February, NASA Administrator Webb set up a review board to investigate the matter thoroughly. Engineers at the Manned Spacecraft Center duplicated conditions of the Apollo 204 without the crewmen in the capsule. They reconstructed events and the investigation on pad 34 showed that the fire started in or near one of the wire bundles to the left and just in front of Grissom's seat on the left side of the cabin -- a spot visible to Chaffee. The fire was probably invisible for about five or six seconds until Chaffee sounded the alarm.
The exhaustive investigation of the fire and extensive reworking of the CMs postponed any manned launch until NASA officials cleared the CM for manned flight. Saturn 1B schedules were suspended for nearly a year, and the launch vehicle that finally bore the designation AS-204 carried a Lunar Module (LM) as the payload, not the Apollo CM. The missions of AS-201 and AS-202 with Apollo spacecraft aboard, unofficially known as Apollo 1 and Apollo 2 missions, carried only the aerodynamic nose cone.
In the spring of 1967, NASA's Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, Dr. George E. Mueller, announced that the mission originally scheduled for Grissom, White and Chaffee would be known as Apollo 1, and that the first Saturn V launch, scheduled for November 1967, would be known as Apollo 4. The eventual launch of AS-204 became known as the Apollo 5 mission (no missions or flights were ever designated Apollo 2 and 3).
From NASA SP-4204, Moonport, A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations.