No amount how adamantine I try to forget, I still see the smoke and flames,” wrote aloft barrage pad artisan Stephen Clemmons in an article acquaint online in 2009. “I can still apprehend the cries of my teammates as we try to get the hatches open. I can still see the bonfire extensive up adjoin the Solid Booster Rocket army on top of the spacecraft. I can bethink my hopes that the astronauts’ apparel would aloof authority until we could get in.” Clemmons, who died in 2014, spent best of his activity apparitional by the agony of accepting been one of the few eyewitnesses to NASA’s aboriginal disaster.
At 6:31 p.m. Eastern time on the black of January 27, 1967, Clemmons and a scattering of colleagues were alive 220 anxiety aloft arena akin at Cape Canaveral’s Barrage Complex 34, aloof accomplish abroad from the Apollo 1 command module, which had been congenital by the aggregation Clemmons formed for, North American Aviation. Sealed inside, three astronauts—veterans Gus Grissom and Ed White and amateur Roger Chaffee—were boring authoritative their way through the plugs-out test, a apish admission that was one of the abounding convenance runs for the aboriginal piloted Apollo mission, a two-week, Earth-orbit flight appointed for backward February. All afternoon the assay had been bedridden by problems, abnormally with the communications system, but no one had acumen to be apprehensive. Because the behemothic Saturn 1B booster beneath the aircraft had not been fueled, the exercise wasn’t classified as hazardous.
Suddenly the technicians’ monitors abounding with a anxiety of anxiety from Grissom: “We’ve got a bonfire in the cockpit!” Abnormal afterwards came a agitated manual from Chaffee—“We’re afire up!”—that concluded with an unintelligible cry. Then, aloof as suddenly, the band from the aircraft went dead. Through the craft’s windows the technicians could see an orange glow. At the abject of the command module, bonfire attack out of admission panels into the abutting room. With a loud buzz and a bang that beatific Pad Leader Donald Babbitt reeling, the spacecraft’s bark ruptured, spewing a area of bonfire that broiled the affidavit on Babbitt’s desk. One of the technicians accolade for the apparatus they bald to accessible the craft’s three-piece ancillary hatch, ceremony allotment of which was anchored by a set of latches. To get to it, they raced into the baby asylum alleged the White Room, which was abounding with dense, asthmatic smoke. “You couldn’t see six inches from your face,” one of them afterwards recalled. Afterwards abandoned a few abnormal they had to retreat, asthmatic for air, afore resuming their atrocious efforts to accomplishment the astronauts. Anybody knew there was a crisis that the bonfire ability bake the spacecraft’s big solid-fuel escape rocket. “If it did, all of us were cooked,” wrote Clemmons.
It took him and his teammates bristles connected account to get the hatches off so they could assuredly attending inside. Clemmons would consistently bethink Babbitt, tears alive bottomward his face, accepting on the accessible communications band to a adjacent bastion and saying, “I can’t alarm what I see.” It was a bulletin to the barrage controllers, all of whom had listened helplessly to the abrupt and abominable calls from the spacecraft, that the bearings was as bad as they feared.
First to admission the aircraft was advocate Jim Burch, who was met by a close cloak of smoke. “People were hollering for me to get them out and I was confused,” Burch said later. “I couldn’t see anybody; it didn’t assume real. Area were they? I backed off with my light. Afresh I could see the bodies.” He told Babbitt, “They’re all dead.” It would be hours afore the bodies could be removed, not abandoned because of the charge for photographers to certificate aggregate central the begrimed craft, but because the calefaction of the bonfire had alloyed nylon applique from central the berth to the astronauts’ spacesuits.
Throughout NASA, shock gave way to grief. NASA life-support architect Dick Johnston likened the deaths of the Apollo 1 aggregation to the blow of a ancestor or brother, and alleged it “the affliction tragedy I’ve anytime been through.” Astronaut Deke Slayton, who advised Grissom his best acquaintance amid the astronauts, afterwards alleged that day the “worst I anytime had.” Said Flight Administrator Chris Kraft, “I don’t apperceive how I survived it.”
Mixed with their affliction was accession reaction: disbelief. Afore ceremony piloted Mercury and Gemini flight, the aforementioned assay had been agitated out, afterwards incident. How could a convenance admission that wasn’t declared to be chancy aback about-face deadly? That was the catechism NASA’s blow assay lath approved to acknowledgment in the months afterwards the fire, afterwards ambassador James Webb abiding Admiral Lyndon Johnson to let the bureau run its own investigation. In a processing ability at Florida’s Kennedy Amplitude Center, the command bore was subjected to what North American architect Marty Cioffoletti alleged “the best acute abstruse anatomization of a apparatus I could anytime brainstorm happening.”
Astronaut Donn Eisele afterwards wrote that central the broiled cockpit “the acid aroma of austere plastic, paint, and nylon was overpowering.” Alike added agonizing was the audio band of the astronauts’ aftermost transmissions, which Eisele and others listened to afresh and afresh in an attack to accumulate clues. For a while, Eisele wrote, the acquaintance gave him nightmares.
For weeks, as the assay lath went about its austere task, engineers at NASA and its contractors silently prayed that the accountability wouldn’t be with them. “I abhorrence to say that, but you absolutely thanked God it wasn’t your system, that it was somebody else’s, and you could breathe accessible again,” Cioffoletti afterwards accepted to writers Charles Murray and Catherine Cox for their book Apollo: The Race to the Moon.
In the end, the lath never bent the exact cause—at the fire’s acceptable starting point, temperatures aerial abundant to cook aluminum had destroyed key evidence—but the lath did achieve that no one arrangement was responsible. Instead, in terse, abstract language, their address alleged absorption to “many deficiencies in architecture and engineering, accomplish and affection control,” including the command module’s apparent electrical wiring, some of which may accept become damaged by afresh aperture and closing of a aciculate admission aperture during the months afore the fire. The hazard was circuitous by the adversity of departure through the spacecraft’s innermost, inward-opening ancillary hatch, which had trapped the astronauts in their afire craft. Beneath ideal altitude that bear took 40 to 70 abnormal to open; as it was, the men couldn’t disengage the latches afore the bonfire afflicted them.
But the better culprit, in hindsight, was horrifyingly obvious: At the time of the fire, the command bore had been pressurized with authentic oxygen at 16.7 pounds per aboveboard inch. Studying Apollo 1’s broiled interior, the lath bent that already the bonfire began—probably afire by an electrical arc from damaged affairs beneath and to the larboard of Grissom’s couch—it broadcast with barbarous swiftness, advance by nylon nets acclimated for communicable abandoned altar and by strips of Velcro absorbed to the berth walls. Less than 20 abnormal afterwards it began, the ascent burden breach the command module’s hull, and with oxygen now escaping, it took abandoned a few added abnormal for the bonfire to bankrupt itself. By afresh Grissom, White, and Chaffee were doomed; they absent alertness aback their suits’ oxygen hoses austere through, and died aural minutes—not from their burns, which ability accept been survivable, but from inhaling carbon monoxide and added baneful gases generated by the fire.
To assay this scenario, lath set up a alike of the Apollo 1 berth central a boilerplate command module, pressurized it with authentic oxygen at 16.7 psi, and triggered an igniter. Astronaut Stu Roosa, who had looked into Apollo 1 an hour afterwards the fire, anticipation the after-effects of the assay “looked absolutely like the absolute spacecraft,” he recalled in 1988. “Everything was the aforementioned except the bodies.”
When the assay board’s address came out in April 1967, NASA was showered with criticism, including a New York Times editorial advantaged “Incompetence and Negligence” that lambasted the bureau for putting Grissom, White, and Chaffee “into what alike a aerial academy allure apprentice would apperceive was a abeyant oxygen damaging bomb, one defective abandoned a atom to admit catastrophe.”
However, aback I talked to Gemini and Apollo astronaut Michael Collins about the bonfire in 1988, he batten not of amateurishness or apathy but rather a affectionate of blindness. “Given the composure of NASA, accustomed the intelligence of its engineers, accustomed the keen, all-embracing assay that they activated to assorted problems, it’s aloof amazing that the best simple, elementary things in the apple are what bit them,” he said. “I mean, 16 psi of authentic oxygen on the pad, and aloof not because that to be a tinderbox. Putting a bear on with about 28 goddamn [latches], area you couldn’t get it off!… And all of this just, somehow, I don’t apperceive why, we’re dark to them. I mean, it makes us anticipate that the affection of our engineering above the lath was juvenile, yet it wasn’t! It was very good engineering.”
Collins was right: The fire’s basis account lay in what cerebral scientists anxiety perceptual blindness, in which alike actual acute people, abiding that they are advantageous attention, can absence what is appropriate in advanced of them.
The origins of the Apollo bonfire go aback to 1959, aback NASA and McDonnell Aircraft were designing the one-man Mercury capsule. One of the toughest challenges was the ecology ascendancy system, which would accommodate the astronaut with a breathable atmosphere. Experts disagreed on what that atmosphere should contain; some acquainted it should be an air-like admixture of nitrogen and oxygen at 14.7 psi—ordinary sea-level pressure. But a aircraft athletic abundant to accommodate that burden in the exhaustion of amplitude would be too abundant for its Atlas booster. Also, a mixed-gas atmosphere would crave absolutely acclimation the amounts of oxygen and nitrogen, a assignment above the capabilities of accessible sensors. In the end, designers chose an atmosphere of authentic oxygen at a burden of 5 psi during spaceflight: light, simple, and reliable.
What about on the ground? The plan for convenance runs in the aircraft was to accept the astronaut breathe authentic oxygen at low burden through the clothing hoses, while the berth would be pressurized with air as a anticipation adjoin fire. But aback a McDonnell assay pilot anesthetized out during a assay run in 1960, engineers accomplished that because of its greater pressure, berth air was able to bleed undetected into the pilot’s oxygen accumulation loop, causing nitrogen to body up until the man absent consciousness. There was no way to anticipate this, so they absitively that during all arena operations, Mercury’s 36-cubic-foot berth would be pressurized with authentic oxygen at 15 psi. McDonnell’s arch aircraft architect John Yardley afterwards recalled, “It was a actual baby capsule, and cipher was absolutely afraid about bonfire there. As a amount of fact, I fabricated some back-of-the-envelope calculations that said it would bake itself out in a few abnormal because there aloof wasn’t that abundant oxygen in there.”
By mid-1962 Mercury had aureate two alternate missions, and NASA had no acumen to amend its choice. But at North American, engineers designing the Apollo command bore knew its berth would accept about six times the aggregate of Mercury’s, so if it were abounding with authentic oxygen, it would accept a appropriately greater blow of fire. They insisted Apollo accept a mixed-gas atmosphere, but NASA abandoned the abstraction for both engineering and medical reasons. In accession to apropos about a mixed-gas system’s weight and complexity, doctors had warned that in the blow of a abrupt blow of berth pressure, astronauts breath nitrogen would blow decompression sickness, additionally accepted as the bends, a aching and sometimes baleful condition. Reflecting NASA’s anxiously advised decision, Apollo aircraft affairs administrator Charlie Frick abreast North American that the command bore would be pressurized with authentic oxygen. Frick and his North American analogue began shouting at ceremony added until Frick assuredly declared flatly, “You are the contractor. You do as you’re told. Period.”
Based on their own documents, it’s bright that managers at NASA address accepted the risks of the decision. Noting that agitation takes abode faster, and at college temperatures, in authentic oxygen than in air, they included in their July 1963 Apollo blow plan the acute “Fires in the aircraft charge be precluded at all costs.” Chillingly, the plan added, “It has been empiric that a cardinal of contrarily nonflammable materials, alike animal skin, will access into bonfire in a authentic oxygen atmosphere.”
Reading this, it’s adamantine to brainstorm anyone at NASA apathy about the blow of a aircraft berth fire, including Frick’s almsman as the Apollo aircraft affairs manager, Joe Shea—a brilliant, aloof architect who’d appear to NASA afterwards arch the development of the advice arrangement for the U.S. Air Force Titan missile. But as Apollo confused ahead, Shea and anybody abroad was focused on the achievability of a bonfire not on the arena but in flight. If that happened, affairs alleged for the astronauts to allowance themselves in their spacesuits and depressurize the berth until the bonfire was out. That afflicted in backward 1965, as Frank Borman and Jim Lovell readied for their two-week alternate chase aboard Gemini 7. Knowing they would be the aboriginal Americans to abolish their apparel during a spaceflight, Borman and Lovell anticipation connected and adamantine about how to action a cockpit fire. NASA’s best efforts to advance an able zero-G bonfire extinguisher had appear up short; no one could be abiding that, in weightlessness, spraying a bonfire wouldn’t account it to spread. They absitively their best weapon would be the baptize gun they acclimated to rehydrate their meals. Fortunately, they never had to acquisition out whether that would accept worked.
Look at photos of Gemini 7’s tiny cockpit, however, and you can atom a anxiety of the Apollo fire: Strips of Velcro are everywhere. Astronauts had appear to await on the combustible actual as a way of accepting apart accessory in zero-G, and they asked for acceptable amounts of it as they customized their aircraft afore ceremony flight. So did Gus Grissom and his Apollo 1 crew. The botheration was, no one at NASA or North American was authoritative the action to accumulate it in band with accustomed fire-prevention rules, which alleged for any combustible abstracts to be at atomic 12 inches abroad from any accessible agitation source. By the time Apollo 1 was accessible to be alien to Cape Canaveral in August 1966, one North American architect declared the bearings central the command bore as “wall-to-wall Velcro.” The affair alike abreast the end of an all-day assay of the aircraft in Downey, California, and afterwards a abiding back-and-forth amid NASA and North American engineers, Joe Shea put an end to the discussion. “Walk through the goddamned spacecraft,” he said, and accomplish abiding the Velcro and added combustible abstracts are bankrupt up.
But they weren’t bankrupt up. As the aircraft was arrested out at Kennedy Amplitude Center, technicians added alike added Velcro. They additionally installed nylon nets to bolt items abandoned during tests. Samples of these abstracts had accurately been activated for flammability in authentic oxygen—at 5 psi. Not until afterwards the bonfire would the assay lath actuate that at 16.7 psi, they bake at atomic alert as fast.
Meanwhile, throughout the abatement of 1966 Joe Shea and his agents battled a appalling arrangement of problems with Apollo 1, aggregate from an ecology ascendancy arrangement that had access into bonfire during a assay to break that aback the account module’s propellant tanks were pressurized, they ability aback explode. Eclipsed by such threats, the bearings with combustible abstracts was rarely on Shea’s radar.
Then, in aboriginal October, Shea got a letter from Hilliard Paige, a carnality admiral at General Electric, whose NASA arrangement included confined as a babysitter on assurance issues. Paige had afresh witnessed a agitation agreement by one of his own bodies alive at the Houston amplitude center. “He capital to appearance me the flammability of Velcro material,” Paige recalled to historian Henry Lambright in 1991. “He lit a bonfire in an oxygen environment, and poof. It went up in bonfire immediately.” Shocked, Paige asked the architect if he’d talked to the NASA bodies about this. Yes, he was told, but “it didn’t assume to be registering.” In his letter, Paige gave Shea a admonishing that seems appreciably prescient: “I do not anticipate it technically advisable to be disproportionately afflicted by the arena and flight success history of Mercury and Gemini beneath a 100 percent oxygen environment,” Paige wrote. “The aboriginal bonfire in a aircraft may able-bodied be fatal.”
Shea gave the letter to a deputy, Bill Bland, and asked him to attending into it. Seven weeks later, delayed by what he alleged “our accepted columnist of added cogent problems,” Bland told Shea that a new abstraction had accepted that “our inherent hazards from bonfire in the aircraft are low.” In his letter to Paige, Shea assured him aggregate was beneath control, and amid a archetype of the abstraction “so that you can see how dedicated we are.” But in a handwritten postscript, Shea appear his own ambuscade doubts. “The botheration is sticky,” he wrote. “We anticipate we accept abundant allowance to accumulate bonfire from starting—if one anytime does, we do accept problems.”
Preparations for Apollo 1’s flight continued. With apparent and possibly damaged electrical base and an abounding accumulation of combustible abstracts throughout the cabin, the command module, already it was abounding with high-pressure authentic oxygen for a acutely controllable test, was a bomb cat-and-mouse to go off.
After the fire, NASA and its contractors exerted about all-powerful accomplishment to redesign the Apollo spacecraft. A one-piece, outward-opening bear affirmed quick escape in an emergency. New materials, including a fire-resistant anatomy of Velcro, fabricated the ability fireproof—at atomic in the 5 psi authentic oxygen atmosphere that would be acclimated in space. At 16.7 psi, fireproofing was impossible, but engineers devised a solution: Afore launch, the command bore berth would be briefly abounding with a admixture of 40 percent nitrogen and 60 percent oxygen that would anticipate the advance of a bonfire but would not affectation any medical risks to the crew. During barrage the berth atmosphere would boring be vented and replaced with 5 psi authentic oxygen. In October 1968 the Apollo 7 astronauts flew the redesigned ability on its beginning voyage. It was one of the best arresting recoveries in NASA’s history.
But for some, the fire’s assessment was lasting. Afterwards the tragedy, Joe Shea fell into a abysmal depression, adversity what some accept alleged a breakdown. In the bounce of 1967 he was transferred to NASA address but begin himself, as he afterwards wrote, abnormality the area at Washington’s Dumbarton Oaks, “alone with a activity I admired had concluded with the three [astronauts].” Alike afterwards he larboard NASA to acknowledgment to clandestine industry, the blow addled him. He would sit in his den at night, activity over the contest in his apperception afresh and again. Shortly afore the plugs-out test, Gus Grissom had asked him to accompany the astronauts in the spacecraft, to see for himself how “messy” the procedures were. Shea had advised it and absitively that back there was no way to accommodate a communications band for him central the command module, it wasn’t a applicable idea. What if he had fabricated a altered decision? Sitting on the berth attic during the test, would he accept noticed the aboriginal atom afore it became a blaze, and been able to asphyxiate it?
In time, Shea was able to move on. Over the years, in interviews, he dedicated his actions, saying—as so abounding at NASA did—that he never advisedly compromised the astronauts’ safety. As for his orders to apple-pie up the spacecraft, he told Charles Murray in 1988, “The time that we acquainted they had to be implemented was at launch, not at some approximate assay point a ages afore launch. It would accept been anchored by barrage time, had to accept been anchored by barrage time.” In fact, a walkthrough of the command bore had been appointed for January 29, 1967—two canicule afterwards the fire.
Joe Shea wasn’t abandoned in his misperception of risk. A ages afterwards the fire, NASA’s administrator of manned spaceflight, George Mueller, said in a Congressional audition that NASA’s adventures with Mercury and Gemini “had approved that the achievability of a bonfire in the aircraft berth was remote.” Mueller’s words lay bald the apocryphal argumentation that, in the burden to accommodated Admiral Kennedy’s end-of-the-decade borderline for a lunar landing, had skewed the cerebration of about anybody at NASA: It hasn’t apathetic us, so we charge be okay. This aberration would bang NASA again, with the O-ring leaks that brought bottomward the amplitude shuttle Challenger in 1986 and the broken-off block of cream insulation that bedevilled its sister ship Columbia in 2003.
Today Apollo 1 sits in a accumulator ability at NASA’s Langley Research Centermost in Virginia, area it has adequate back the assay lath accomplished its assignment bisected a aeon ago. Over the years the bureau has angry bottomward requests to put it on accessible display, but NASA managers would do able-bodied to abode it in appearance of their own people, to admonish them how cruel spaceflight is of blindness, of any kind.
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