How Deadly Apollo Fire Helped Save NASA

Apollo 1 crew: Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee (L-R), photo AP

It was supposed to be a routine launch pad test.

But from the Apollo 1 command module at Pad 34 came a panicked voice saying, "Fire in the cockpit."

Exactly 40 years later, the three Apollo astronauts who were killed in that flash fire were remembered Saturday for paving the way for later astronauts to be able to travel to the moon. The deaths of Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee forced NASA to take pause in its space race with the Soviet Union and make design and safety changes that were critical to the agency's later successes.

"I can assure you if we had not had that fire and rebuilt the command module ... we could not have done the Apollo program successfully," said retired astronaut John Young, who flew in Gemini 3 with Grissom in 1965. "So we owe a lot to Gus, and Rog and Ed. They made it possible for the rest of us to do the almost-impossible."

The memorial service at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex marked the start of a solemn week for NASA — Sunday is the 21st anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger accident, and Thursday makes four years since the space shuttle Columbia disaster.

Chaffee's widow, Martha, and White's son, Edward III, along with NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier, laid a wreath at the base of the Space Mirror Memorial, a tall granite-finished wall engraved with the names of the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia astronauts and seven other astronauts killed in accidents.

Audio: CBS News correspondent Peter King reports on the .
Chaffee, 69, remembered feeding her two children hot dogs for dinner that night in 1967 and knowing something was wrong when astronaut Michael Collins showed up at her home to tell her about the accident.

"My first reaction was, 'What could have happened? He's not flying,"' Martha Chaffee recalled before the ceremony.

NASA also hadn't considered the countdown drill hazardous, anticipating accidents only in space. Fire rescue and medical teams were not at the launch pad. No procedures had been developed for the type of emergency the Apollo 1 crew faced. The work levels around the spacecraft contained steps, sliding doors and sharp turns that hindered emergency responses.

An investigation said the fire most likely started in an area near the floor around some wires between the oxygen panel and the environmental control system. The 100 percent oxygen environment made it highly combustible and internal pressure made it impossible for the astronauts to open the command module's inner hatch.

The astronauts died from inhaling toxic gases.

Before his death, Grissom, the second astronaut in space, had been so disappointed with problems in the new spacecraft that at one point he hung a lemon over it, said Lowell Grissom, the astronaut's younger brother.

After the tragedy, the command module's hatch was changed so it opened outward, flammable materials in the cabin were replaced, wiring problems were fixed and a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen replaced the all oxygen atmosphere.

Apollo 1's legacy contributed to the safety culture at NASA and the successful lunar landings, said Edward White III, whose father conducted the first U.S. spacewalk in 1965.

"The safety that came out of Apollo 1 is still here today," he said.

Describing it as "one of the most significant relics in the history of the space program," Lowell Grissom urged that the Apollo 1 spacecraft be moved from a warehouse in Virginia to the launch pad where the astronauts perished.

"As we remember their deaths ... let us renew our dedication to the quest for which they died, reaching for the stars for all mankind," Grissom said.

Astronaut Grissom understood the hazards he and his fellow pilots faced, and his own words seem to reach out beyond his death to comfort and inspire others: "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."
  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.