Apollo 1’s Fatal Fire Almost Ended the Spaceflight Program | Apollo

Going to space was always a risk,but in the beginning of the Apollo Program, the UnitedStates got a stark realization of just how
dangerous its moon missions would be. The Apollo Program almost ended before it
even got off the ground. In the mid 1960s, NASA was working at breakneck
speed, attempting to take another step towardsPresident John F. Kennedy’s goal to land
a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Apollo Program engineers were still focused
on fulfilling the foundation for the project’sobjectives: Establishing the technology to
meet other national interests in space; Achievingpreeminence in space for the U. S. ; Carrying
out a program of scientific exploration ofthe Moon; And developing man’s capability
to work in the lunar environment. By 1966, NASA upgraded its first multistage
rocket, the Saturn I, to the more powerful Saturn IB. The top part of the rocket was where several
major systems lived including the Apollo spacecraft- known as the Command-Service Module or CSM. The command module was considered the mother
ship, with the goal of carrying the astronautsto space and then returning them safely to Earth. Inside were three compartments, including
the sealed crew cabin, which only had aboutsix cubic meters of space. With all the operational displays, crew couches
and equipment, there was very little roomleft over for the astronauts to maneuver. A prototype version of the spacecraft, the
Apollo Block I CSM, would be the first toembark on a manned mission. NASA set the launch date for February 21,
1967. The purpose of the flight was to test launch
operations, ground tracking and control facilities,and the performance of the Saturn IB rocket
and the CSM spacecraft. NASA selected two veterans and one rookie
as the crew for the mission that was laterdubbed Apollo 1. The command pilot, Gus Grissom, was no stranger
to the stress of space flight. Grissom was one of the original Mercury pilots,
and during the splashdown of his first mission,the capsule’s hatch blew open, causing him
to nearly drown. The senior pilot was Ed White who was the
first American to conduct a space walk duringProject Gemini. And the pilot was Roger Chaffee who at 31
would be theyoungest American ever to go to space. He was added the crew as a replacement after
the original pilotdislocated his shoulder during training. Chaffee was known as a notoriously nice guy
who was often teased by other astronauts forhis admiration of Grissom and White. He saw the Apollo 1 mission as a way to prove
himself worthy of the title of astronaut. Early on in their training, Grissom and the
rest of the crew voiced concerns with thespacecraft – primarily with the amount of
flammable material in the cabin. The astronauts jokingly presented this crew
portrait to the Apollo Spacecraft ProgramOffice manager after he gave the spacecraft
a passing grade. But the thing is, the astronauts weren’t
alone in their concerns. In fact, some experts believed the immense
pressure of Kennedy’s deadline forced NASAand the contractor, North American Aviation,
to make decisions that sacrificed safety. One of the main concerns was NASA’s decision
to opt for a single gas environment insidethe capsule over a dual gas environment because
it required a lighter system. This meant that the Apollo spacecraft would
use 100% oxygen in the crew cabin, so evena small spark could quickly turn into a blaze. Adding to that fear, other astronauts reported
seeing what appeared to be frayed wires andshort circuits in the cabin of the spacecraft. There were also issues with the decision to
have the hatch open inward and the fact thatit did not carry explosive bolts in case of
an emergency. NASA and North American Aviation made as many
adjustments as possible. But in the interest of time, they decided
to move forward with the February flight. One month before launch, the rocket and spacecraft
were cleared for what was referred to as a “plugs out test”. At 1pm on January 27th, the Apollo 1 astronauts
entered the command module, sealed the hatchand prepared for what was considered a sort
of dress rehearsal for the actual flight. There were problems from the start. First, there was a foul odor emanating from
the oxygen tank;and then there was an alarm triggered, indicating
a high oxygen flow;To the frustration of the crew, static continually
drowned communication with the control room. At 6:31pm the test conductors were ready to
start the countdown. . . seconds later horror struck. A flash fire ripped through the spacecraft. The emergency escape procedure called for
a minimum of 90 seconds, but it only tookabout 30 seconds for flames and toxic smoke
to engulf the crew cabin. Despite heroic efforts by NASA ground crews
and controllers, it took a full five minutesto open the hatch. The deaths of Grissom, White and Chaffee were
a shocking wake up call that caused many toquestion President Kennedy’s deadline to
put a man on the moon. All the progress NASA had made was blinded
by tragedy. The investigation of the Apollo 1 fire forced
a hold on the space program. The hard lessons learned from this mission
would dictate new stringent checks and balancesthat would inform all NASA missions to follow,
ultimately changing the nation’s path to the moon. There’s a lot of history that led up to
this point, so if you want to learn more aboutthe start of the space race and NASA’s first
missions, check out this video. And make sure you subscribe to Seeker to follow
the entire Apollo series. Thanks for watching!

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