Wednesday, January 17, 2007

It took a fire to put man on the moon

Last year I researched the Apollo 1 fire - here's the link-through piece with appeared on the New Scientist's Space blog

Apollo 204: how a fatal fire put a man on the moon

“We’ve got a fire in the cockpit! We’ve got a bad fire....get us out. We’re burning up....”

On January 27, 1967 the crew of the first planned Apollo mission was in Command Module (CSM) 012 on Pad 34 at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, running through a standard ‘plugs out test’ . With a month still to their launch date, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee faced a routine rehearsal for their Apollo ‘shake down’ mission. But as testing neared its conclusion, an electrical arc caused a flash fire in the capsule. Within seconds, the astronauts were dead.

North American Aviation technician Steve Clemmons had been monitoring the oxygen feed into the spacecraft from the Clean Room on the top floor of the gantry tower. “The astronauts had been in the capsule for over five hours and tempers were a little frayed. There had been problems all through the test. Testing was on hold and we could tell by Grissom’s scuffling inside the craft that he was agitated.

“The final test called for the Astronauts to declare an emergency, so we weren’t surprised when we heard: ‘Fire, we’ve got a fire in here.’ I looked over toward a colleague, Jim Gleaves. He could see that this wasn’t a test. Shocked, he yelled: ‘Let’s get the men out’ as he and Don Babbitt, the pad leader, followed by Jerry Hawkins, rushed out on the swing arm that led to the White Room surrounding the entrance hatch of the capsule.

“I looked up at the nearest capsule window. It had turned bright orange. Then I realised that we had a real fire on our hands. The Spacecraft ruptured several seconds later and secondary fires broke out on both levels.”

Frantic fight

Clemmons and his colleagues fought frantically through flames and acrid smoke to get to the CSM’s hatches and get them open, using the only two fire extinguishers on Level 8 (there was none in the CSM itself). By this time some of their clothes were burned off and Gleaves and Babbit had been overcome by smoke and heat.

“It took us four minutes and fifteen seconds to get the cover and hatches off. But the Astronauts were dead, killed within 18 seconds after the first explosion.”

Space race lost?

The US needed Apollo to be a success. For the past decade they’d been playing space catch-up with the Soviets who had put the first artificial satellite in space, swiftly followed by the first man (and woman). Now, NASA believed the Soviets were at least neck and neck in the race to put a man on the moon.

Following the successes of Mercury when NASA had launched the first American astronauts – including Grissom – into space, and Gemini, during which Ed White became the first American to walk in space, NASA was on the verge of the first Apollo launch – until the fatal fire struck..

Now the government’s $22 billion investment in Apollo was in jeopardy, and President Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely before the end of the decade looked like words without substance.


Apollo 204 had been trouble from the start. The simulators didn’t work and NAA – new to the space race – had endured serious problems during the capsule’s manufacture. It was way behind schedule and shipped to the Cape with a hundreds of faults outstanding. Change in the CSM was a daily occurrence – and many of the changes weren’t being properly recorded or managed.

NASA and its contractors alike were suffering, according to Steve Clemmons, from ‘Moon fever’. “There was an attitude at Kennedy of ‘do everything, even if it’s wrong’ to get us to the moon.

“We were working at top speed to get the craft ready for launch. All-too-regular VIP visits inside the capsule, plus the huge amount of work being undertaken by engineers and technicians, were bound to affect the craft. There were miles of exposed wire, aluminium tubing, valves and electrical devices. Velcro strips with an extremely flammable backing were installed on all the open wall areas, and nylon netting was suspended below the seats.

“Then, the test itself was planned in a pure oxygen environment. In such an environment, even steel burns. Hindsight provides wonderful 20:20, but this was an accident waiting to happen.”


“Such an obvious thing and yet we hadn’t considered it,” commented Apollo 11 astronaut, Michael Collins. Writing in Carrying the fire, he said: “We put three guys inside an untried spacecraft, strapped them into couches, locked two cumbersome hatches behind them and left them no way of escaping a fire.......With all those oxygen molecules packed in there at that pressure (16psi) any material generally considered combustible would be almost explosive.”

Following the accident, US space flight was put on hold. Shock gripped NASA and the nation. James Webb, NASA Administrator, told the media: "We've always known that something like this was going to happen soon or later. . . . who would have thought that the first tragedy would be on the ground?"

But as the nation mourned, Webb acted to save Apollo. He asked President Johnson for NASA to be allowed to handle the accident investigation and direct the recovery from the accident. He promised to be truthful in assessing blame and pledged to assign it to himself and NASA management as appropriate. Johnson agreed.

Webb appointed an eight member investigation board, chaired by longtime NASA official and director of the Langley Research Centere, Floyd L. Thompson. It set out to discover the details of the tragedy: what happened, why it happened, could it happen again, what was at fault, and how could NASA recover?

The very fact that the fire had occurred on the launch pad rather than in space probably saved Apollo. Thompson had all the evidence in front of him to assess the cause of the fire – and more so, what needed to be done to get Apollo back in the race.


The burnt out capsule was taken to Langley, and over the following weeks, a team of almost 2000 investigators took the charred capsule apart. Every piece was examined thoroughly, with intense scrutiny of the miles of wiring that had snaked through the craft.

While the fire investigations singled out no specific source – NASA’s report states ‘an electrical fire of undetermined origins’, it’s generally accepted that the fire began just below Grissom’s seat on the left side of the capsule. In the pure oxygen atmosphere, it spread with frightening rapidity.

The Thompson investigation was swiftly followed by congressional hearings by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Manned Apollo space flight was grounded until Apollo 7 launched on October 11 1968.

Webb managed to deflect the criticism from Thompson’s team and the subsequent Congressional hearings away from individuals within both NASA and the CSM contractor, North American Aviation. He subsequently resigned from NASA in October 1968.

Meanwhile, Grissom and Chaffee had been buried at Arlington and White at West Point, all with full military honours, and a nation mourned its lost heroes. Some months later, the flight that never happened was given the official title Apollo 1.

Out of the fire

Yet fellow astronaut Walt Cunningham, a member of the back-up crew who subsequently served on the Apollo 204 investigation isn’t comfortable with viewing the three as heroes.

He told me: “The crew was simply performing a routine test. Unfortunately there was an accident and they lost their lives. Nothing heroic was involved other than their being astronauts – a risky job.”

The biggest impact of the fire was that it gave NASA the necessary pause for breath to get the programme back on track to fulfil Kennedy’s pledge. “Apollo 1 was a vital step to the moon,” Cunningham continued, “because it reminded management that spacecraft were dangerous and bought the time necessary to fix deficiencies.”

Just whether NASA’s ‘fixes’ were enough was put to the test in October 1968 when Cunningham finally took to the skies alongside Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele aboard Apollo 7. The mission was a resounding technical success. A chastened organisation was finally in fit shape to put a man on the moon.

The Apollo1 fire marked the loss of NASA’s innocence. Yet the catastrophe paved the way for a new regime that revolutionised mission planning and safety. By learning its lessons so painfully on the launch pad, NASA enabled Neil Armstrong to set foot on the moon in July 1969.

Useful web resources:

NASA history
Kennedy Space Centre
USAF Space and Missile
Apollo 1 Memorial Foundation


· A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin, Penguin ISBN: 0140272011
· Space Race – Deborah Cadbury, Harper Perennial ISBN: 13 978 000 720994 1
· Carrying the Fire – Michael Collins, Cooper Square Press ISBN: 081541028X
· The All-American Boys – Walter Cunningham, ibooks ISBN: 0743486676

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Ron Shewchuk said...

Great piece, Mark. Thanks for sharing it.

We always talk about how an organization needs a "burning platform" to motivate people change. At NASA, it wasn't just a metaphor. Thanks again for a fascinating case study in how real change happens.

Anonymous said...

Great article Mark, and well worth the read. A nice tribute to the lives of these great men.

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