Apollo Missions NASA / History

Apollo 1 tragedy

Disaster strikes during a safety check
A fire in the cockpit takes the lives of three astronauts

While the Apollo Program is positioned firmly in American history as a prevailing story of remarkable feats and achievements in space exploration and for humankind, it didn’t happen without failures and heavy costs

On January 27, 1967, three NASA astronauts tragically died during a preflight test, for a mission that later became known as Apollo 1

Being an astronaut comes with its share of dangers, one of which is going into the relatively unknown and treacherous frontier of space

But in this case, tragedy struck before the astronauts ever launched

Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were preparing for the first planned, crewed mission to the Moon

At one in the afternoon, they entered the command module at Cape Kennedy’s Launch Complex 34 in Florida for a launch rehearsal

A series of problems arose immediately, and some — including a high oxygen flow into the spacesuits and communications difficulties between astronauts and control personnel — were not properly resolved

Around five and a half hours after the crew entered the cockpit, a fire suddenly broke out. The command module’s complicated hatch design made it difficult to exit the spacecraft quickly.

Grissom had to lower White’s headrest so White could reach above and behind his left shoulder to use a ratchet device to release the latches on the inner hatch, before doing the same on the outer hatch. He never finished the process.

Fire filled the room and made it impossible to reach the astronauts trapped inside. Technicians attempted to access the sealed space capsule, but the command module exploded before they could reach it.

NASA immediately undertook detailed investigations into the disaster, and all crewed Apollo flights were suspended for 20 months while the command module’s hazards were addressed

We honor and remember

Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom

One of the original seven astronauts selected by NASA, he had previously been both pilot of the second Mercury suborbital flight in Liberty Bell 7 and command pilot of the first crewed Project Gemini flight

We honor and remember

Edward White

As pilot of Gemini IV in 1965, he became the first American to ever walk in space. He also served as backup command pilot for Gemini VII, before being named astronaut specialist for the command/service module on the first crewed Apollo flight

We honor and remember

Roger Chaffee

Selected in the third intake of NASA astronauts, he was CapCom for the first two Gemini missions. When he received his first spaceflight assignment for Apollo 1, he was the youngest American ever to be selected.