Fifty years ago to the day, the Apollo 204 prime crew perished as fire swept through their Apollo Block I Command Module (CM). The Apollo 204 crew of Command Pilot Vigil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee had been scheduled to make the first manned flight of the Apollo Program some three weeks hence.
On Friday, 27 January 1967, during a plugs-out ground test on LC-34 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, a fire broke out in the Apollo 204 spacecraft at 23:31:04 UTC (6:31:04 pm EST). Shortly after, a chilling cry was heard across the communications network from Astronaut Chaffee: “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit”.
Believed to have started just below Grissom’s seat, the fire quickly erupted into an inferno that claimed the men’s lives in less than 30 seconds. While each received extensive 3rd degree burns, death was attributed to toxic smoke inhalation.
The Apollo 204 fire was most likely brought about by some minor malfunction or failure in equipment or wire insulation. This failure, which was never positively identified, initiated a sequence of events that culminated in the conflagration.
The post-mishap investigation uncovered numerous defects in CM Block I design, manufacturing, and workmanship. The use of a (1) pure oxygen atmosphere pressurized to 16.7 psia and (2) complex 3-component hatch design (that took a minimum of 90 seconds to open) sealed the astronauts’ fate.
A haunting irony of the tragedy is that America lost her first astronaut crew, not in the sideral heavens, but in a spacecraft that was firmly rooted to the ground.