On January 27, 1967, 50 years ago, a fire broke out at 18:31 EST, in the cockpit of Apollo Command Module 012 while the “Block I” (Earth orbit capable) spacecraft sat atop an unfueled Saturn 1B rocket on launch pad 34 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The system was undergoing a manned test in preparation for the scheduled Apollo 204 mission (now universally referred to as Apollo 1), the first scheduled manned orbital test of an Apollo Block I spacecraft. The three astronauts aboard, Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee were killed by asphyxiation.* In addition to the heartrending loss of life, the tragedy threatened to derail the United States ambitious program to meet President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade.
The day after the fire, James Webb—Administrator of NASA—went to the White House and proposed that NASA be permitted to conduct its own investigation of the causes of the tragedy. “If you want me to do it,” was Webb’s recollection of the conversation, “…the job is – to find out what caused this and the loss of life, fix it, and fly again so we can complete the Apollo mission.” President Johnson agreed. The Apollo 204 accident was investigated by a NASA appointed Review Board.
The Smithsonian does not have any components of the Apollo 204 spacecraft for preservation or display. The evidence studied by the investigators remains with NASA. The National Air and Space Museum does, however, have in its collection a special pair of artifacts we can use to illustrate one of the major modifications made after the fire to the Apollo Command Module. Of the six factors the Apollo 204 Review Board identified as contributing to the accident, the fourth was: The fact that the capsule was not equipped with a quickly removable hatch so that the astronauts could get out rapidly in case of an emergency.
In the Museum’s collection are hatch components from a “Block I” command module CM 017 (Apollo 4) almost identical to the Apollo 1 version. The CM 017 was a part of an unmanned test of the Apollo Saturn V launch vehicle conducted in November of 1967, nine months after the Apollo 1 tragedy. During the test, the spacecraft made two orbits, was placed on a trajectory that mimicked the approach that an Apollo spacecraft would make returning from the Moon, and then was recovered in the Pacific Ocean.
The side entry hatch on CM 017, like CM 012, consisted of two separate hatch covers. The inner-most hatch cover helped maintain the pressure inside the vessel that housed and protected the astronauts. The outer cover was connected to the heatshield that protected the spacecraft during launch and reentry. To leave the crew compartment in an emergency, latches from the inner hatch had to be manually opened and the entire structure pulled inside. Then the outer hatch had to be unlatched and removed. Both the inner and heatshield hatches from Apollo 4 are preserved in the Museum’s collection.
To permit more rapid escape in an emergency, NASA and contractor North American Rockwell engineers developed the Block II “unified hatch.” In this version, the pressure vessel and heatshield hatches are combined (hence the “unified” label). While on the launch pad, astronauts could unlatch the entire assembly by activating a pump handle and then pushing open the carefully counterbalanced combined unit. Alternatively, launch crews could insert a tool to open the hatch from the outside.
All the Apollo crews flew in redesigned spacecraft equipped with the new hatch and other safety features. This one is from the Apollo 11 command module Columbia. The hinges are on the right and the pump handle is on the left. The handle is connected by a ratchet mechanism to all of the latches. Five pumps was all it took to free the hatch, which could then be swung open with a moderate push from inside.
*Report of Apollo 204 Review Board Part 4, History of the Accident, page 4-4; Hearings before the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences United States Senate Ninetieth Congress, Part 3, p. 181.