Hi, everyone. The days between January 27 and February 1 each year are difficult ones in the astronomy and space exploration world. Since 1961, the United States space program, NASA, has sent astronauts into space on over 200 missions. Of those, the astronauts were lost on three, and one of those was a test mission; still on the ground. I’ll write about the others later in the week, but today, I’d like to remember Apollo 1.
In the early days of NASA’s Apollo program, everything was new. Most of the program was being built from scratch. On January 27, 1967, 50 years ago today, Command Gus Grissom (who was the second American in space) , Senior Pilot Edward White, and Pilot Roger Chaffee were scheduled for a routine test of the new Apollo Command Service Module (CSM), in a mission that was originally labeled AS-204. This test was ahead of Apollo 1, the first manned mission of the Apollo program, which was going to fly in February. During the test, a fire broke out in the pure-oxygen atmosphere of the capsule. It spread quickly, and before the astronauts could be removed from the capsule, all three had died. The mission was later labeled Apollo 1 in the astronauts’ memory and in honor of their sacrifices.
The disaster on the pad led to congressional investigations and NASA redesigning the crew capsule to make sure it never happened again. They changed the pure oxygen environment, rebuilt the hatch door to make it easier to open in an emergency, repaired exposed wiring, and created a new emergency plan. Time was running out for NASA to reach the moon before President Kennedy’s deadline of the end of 1969, but the fire grounded the Apollo program until October 1968 when Apollo 7 flew with the redesigned capsule.
If you’d like to learn more about the Apollo Program, including Apollo 1, I recommend the fantastic “A Man on the Moon” (1994) by Andrew Chaikin and the great miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” (1998), which was based on the Chaikin’s book.
Space travel is hard, but after the lessons learned on Apollo 1, nine missions flew to the moon. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has wondered what terrible things might have happened in space if Apollo 1 hadn’t happened first, on the ground. Thanks to the astronauts, and to you for taking a minute to remember.