“We’ve Got A Fire In The Cockpit!” – The Apollo 1 Tragedy

Okay, after doing some research on this first American tragedy where astronauts lives were lost will probably give me nightmares tonight for sure.  This accident will happen 50 years ago on January 27th.  The crew was getting ready to launch on the Apollo 1 mission on February 21, 1967 on a mission that would last about 14 days in Earth orbit on a shakedown mission of the Apollo spacecraft in preparations for upcoming moon landings.  This mission would not happen due to the tragic loss of life that was supposed to be a “plug test” or rehearsal for launch.  Here is a Cliff Notes version of what I’ve learned from a very detailed account of that day from a NASA website.

The crew members of Apollo 1 were Command Pilot Lt. Colonel Virgil Ivan “Guss” Grissom (USAF), center; Command Pilot Lt. Colonel Edward Higgins White, II (USAF), left, and Pilot Lt. Commander Roger Bruce Chaffe (USN) right.

To give some prospective on where each of them were seated in the capsule, you have on the far left, Roger Chaffe, center seat Edward White and on the right Gus Grissom.  Gus occupied the left seat and that’s where the fire originated on the left side of the cabin.  Grissom was the second American in space after Alan Shepherd and he narrowly escaped death on that flight, when the escape hatch on his capsule “Liberty Bell 7” accidentally blew after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.  Grissom was rescued, but his capsule sank and wasn’t recovered until 1999. (Wikipedia).

January 27, 1967, the crew entered the command module at 1:00pm EST to begin their portion of the simulated countdown.  During this test the Saturn IB booster was not loaded with propellants and was supposed to be a benign test.  But during the countdown, there were problems, first Gus Grissom noted a odor in the spacecraft environmental control system suit oxygen loop.  That issue caused a hold in the countdown around 1:20 pm EST.  This issue was later to be determined not to be related to the fire.  Communications problems was encountered and another hold in the countdown was held at 5:40pm to troubleshoot the problem.  The issue was a continuously live microphone that could not be turned off by the crew.  The countdown entered the T-10 minute hold at 6:20pm and there was no issues or events at that time.  Then at 6:31:04.7 pm EST was the transmission reporting of the fire.

During the 30 seconds before the report of fire, there was movement in the cabin, but it was not believed to be completely related to fire due to sensors in the environmental control and medical sensors on the crew went back to the baseline “rest” level by 6:30:45 p.m EST.  At 6:30:54.8 p.m. EST “a significant voltage transient was recorded.  The records showed a surge in the AC Bus 2 voltage.  Several other parameters being measured also showed anomalous behavior at this time.” (history.nasa.gov)

There was a small video camera located on the hatch window and inside Launch Control, controllers could see flames and unfortunately they could hear the screams from the crew before all went silent just before the command module hull was breached.  The Ed White was trying to open the hatch from the inside, but would be impossible due to the rising air pressure inside the cabin.  There were 3 hatches on the Apollo 1 spacecraft and it was found after the accident that it took too long to recover the crew in case of an emergency.

The fire originated beneath Gus Grissom’s seat and the fire burned in 3 stages.  I will quote vast information about these stages from the website so I won’t leave anything out. ‘ The first stage, with its associated rapid temperature rise and increase in cabin pressure, terminated 15 seconds after the verbal report of fire.  At this time. 6:31:19 p.m. EST, the command module cabin ruptured.  During this first stage, flames moved rapidly from the point of ignition, traveling along debris traps installed in the command module to prevent items from dropping into equipment areas during tests or flight.  At the same time, Velcro strips positioned near the ignition point also burned.’

‘The fire was not intense until about 6:31:12 p.m. EST.  The slow rate of buildup of the fire during the early portion of the first stage was consistent with the opinion that ignition occurred in a zone containing little combustible material.  The slow rise of pressure could also have resulted from absorption of most of the heat by the aluminum structure of the command module.’

‘The original flames rose vertically and then spread out across the cabin ceiling.  The debris traps provided not only combustible material and a path for the spread of the flames, but also firebrands of burning molten nylon.  The scattering of these firebrands contributed to the spread of the flames.’

‘By 6:31:12 p.m. EST, the fire had broken from its point of origin.  A wall of flames extended along the left wall of the module, preventing the command pilot (Grissom), occupying the left couch, from reaching the valve that would vent the command module to the outside atmosphere.’

‘Although operation of this was the first step in established emergency egress procedures, such action would have been to no avail because the venting capacity was insufficient to prevent the rapid buildup of pressure due to the fire.  It was estimated that opening the valve would have delayed command module rupture by less than one second.’

‘Data recorded during the fire showed that the design criterion for cabin pressure was exceeded late in the first stage of the fire and that rupture occurred at about 6:31:19 p.m. EST.  The point of rupture was where the floor or aft bulkhead of the command module joined the wall, essentially opposite the point of origin of the fire.  About three seconds before rupture, at 6:31:16.8 p.m. EST, the final crew communication began.  This communication ended shortly after rupture at 6:31:21.8 p.m. EST, followed by loss of telemetry at 6:31:22.4 p.m. EST.’

‘Rupture of the command module marked the beginning of the brief second stage of the fire.  This stage was characterized by the period of greatest conflagration due to the forced convection that resulted from the out rush of gases through the rupture in the pressure vessel.  The swirling flow scattered firebrands throughout the crew compartment, spreading fire.  This stage of the fire ended at approximately 6:31:25 p.m. EST.  Evidence that the fire spread from the left side of the command module toward the rupture area was found on subsequent examination of the module and crew suits.  Evidence of the intensity of the fire includes burst and burned aluminum tubes in oxygen and coolant systems at floor level.’

‘The third stage was characterized by rapid production of high concentrations of carbon monoxide.  Following the loss of pressure in the command module and with fire now throughout the crew compartment, the remaining atmosphere quickly became deficient of oxygen so that it could not support continued combustion.  Unlike the earlier stages where the flame was relatively smokeless, heavy smoke now formed and large amounts of soot were deposited on most spacecraft interior surfaces as they cooled.  The third stage of the fire could not have lasted more than a few seconds because of the rapid depletion of oxygen.  It was estimated that the command module atmosphere was lethal by 6:31:30 p.m. EST, five seconds after the start of the third stage.’

The rupture of the command module made rescue impossible because flame emerged from the ruptured crew cabin and into the white room, scattering technicians and filling the white room with smoke.  It took the technicians over 5 minutes to open all three hatches.  The sound of the rupture made some believe that the crew compartment had exploded or was going to.  I couldn’t end this article without mentioning the brave men who battled dangerous conditions, trying to find oxygen masks, and trying to see in dark smoke, risking their lives to save the crew.

Here comes the heartbreaking part of the story.  The discovery of the crew.  When firefighters arrived at at the A-8 level, at an estimated time of 6:40 p.m. EST, the positions of the crew couches could be seen through the smoke, but with a lot of difficulty, and an unsuccessful attempt was made to remove the senior pilot (Ed White) from the command module.

‘Initial observations and subsequent inspection revealed the following facts.  The command pilot’s couch -Grissom –  (the left couch) was in the “170 degree” position, in which it was essentially horizontal throughout its length.  The foot restraints and harness were released and the inlet and outlet oxygen hoses were connected to the suit.  The electrical adapter cable was disconnected from the communications cable.

The command pilot (Guss Grissom) was laying on his back on the aft bulkhead floor of the command module, with his helmet visor closed and locked and with his head beneath the pilot’s head rest and his feet on his own couch.  A fragment of his suit material was found outside the command module pressure vessel five feet from the point of rupture.  This indicated that his suit had failed prior to the time of rupture (6:31:19.4 p.m. EST), allowing convection to carry the suit fragment through the rupture.

‘The senior pilot’s (Ed. White) couch (the center couch) was in the “96 degree” position in which the back portion was horizontal and the lower portion was raised.  The buckle releasing the shoulder straps and lap belts were not opened.  The straps and belt were burned through.  The suit oxygen outlet hose was connected but the inlet hose was disconnected.  The helmet visor was closed and locked and all electrical connections were intact.  The senior pilot was lying transversely across the command module below the level of the hatchway.

The pilot’s (Roger Chaffee) couch (the couch on the right) was in the “264 degree” position in which the back portion was horizontal and the lower portion dropped toward the floor.  All restraints were disconnected, all hoses and electrical connections were intact and visor was closed and locked.  The pilot was on his back on his couch.’

‘From the foregoing, it was determined that the command pilot (Grissom) probably left his couch to avoid the initial fire, the senior pilot (White) remained in his couch as planned for emergency egress, attempting to open the hatch until his restraints burned through.  The pilot (Chaffee) remained in his couch to maintain communications until the hatch could be opened by White as planned.  With a slightly higher pressure inside the command module than outside, opening the inner hatch was impossible because of the resulting force of the hatch.

‘When the command module had been adequately ventilated, the doctors returned to the White Room with equipment for crew removal.  It became apparent that extensive fusion of suit material to melted nylon from the spacecraft would make removal very difficult.  For this reason it was decided to discontinue removal efforts in the interest of accident investigation and to photograph the command module with crew in place before evidence was disarranged.’ It is believed that the crew died of asphyxiation within seconds.  Crew removal resumed and lasted approximately 90 minutes and was complete about 7 1/2 hours after the accident or in the early hours of January 28th.

The aftermath of the accident lead to sweeping changes to the Apollo spacecraft.  It went from operating from a 100 percent pure oxygen environment (which was a major contributing cause of the accident), removal of combustible materials, improving escape procedures, making the hatch easier to open from inside 5 seconds and outside 10 seconds, and eliminated the other 2 hatches completely.  There were many other items that were fixed, but it has been said that without this accident, America would have never made it to the moon.  There were too many problems within NASA, the spacecraft and components.

The Apollo 1 spacecraft still resides at the Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia.  Unfortunately the requests have been denied, even by the astronauts families for the capsule to be displayed at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Florida, but then NASA Administrator Dan Golden declined the request. (Launius’s, Roger)  It now sits neither properly preserved or entombed.  It has been locked away from the public view almost like this piece of history to be forgotten, just like the remains of the Challenger are entombed in a silo at Cape Canaveral.  There is a piece of Challenger wreckage in a display case for a memorial at Kennedy Space Center.  At lease that tragedy has a burned reminder of the risks of spaceflight.

Through the bravery and steadfast belief in what they were doing would better America and all of mankind, we stood on the shoulders of these three brave men to accomplish landing on the moon and we now have an orbiting space station and all we have to do is look up when it’s going over our area and see that that piece of technology would not have been possible for the lessons learned from the tragic fire that took place 50 years ago on January 27, 1967.

 

References:

Majority of this article came from…

https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4029/Apollo_01a_Summary.htm

Roger Launius’s Blog (launiusr.wordpress.com)

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