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Forty-five years ago this week (Friday, 27 January 1967), the Apollo 1 prime crew perished as fire swept through their Apollo Block I Command Module (CM) during a ground test at Cape Canaveral, Florida.  The 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.  Shortly after the fire started at 23:31:04 UTC (6:31:04 pm EST), “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit” was reported across the communication network by Astronaut Chaffee.  Believed to have started just below Grissom’s seat, the fire quickly erupted into an inferno that claimed the men’s lives within 30 seconds.  While each received extensive 3rd degree burns, death was attributed to toxic smoke inhalation.   The post-mishap investigation uncovered numerous defects in CM 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.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Comments

Wesley Creed February 15, 2012

you forgot to mention NA had the blow-off hatch already designed and available, NASA didn’t want it… That’s why this problem was rectified in such a short time. As for the 100% O2, ????? or a fire defeat plan, either???

J. Terry White February 21, 2012

Hello Wesley,

Thank you for your comments! The two most significant problems that contributed to the fire were: (1) the ground test was conducted with the spacecraft environmental control system running pure oxygen at 16.7 psia and (2) the use of many flammable materials within the spacecraft crew module. In orbit, pure oxygen was used, but at a greatly reduced pressure; on the order of 5 psia. Previous experience showed that the fire hazard at that pressure, even in pure oxygen, was not great. However, with pure oxygen at 16.7 psia, the fire hazard was greatly magnified as the tragedy confirmed. Moreover, 16.7 psia is greater than the sea level atmospheric pressure (14.7 psia). This meant that the internal pressure level made it almost impossible to open the inward-turning hatch even if it could have been unlocked quickly. All subsequent Apollo Command Module ground tests were performed with a 60% oxygen/40% nitrogen gas mix. Pure oxygen was still used in flight. Finally, all flammable materials were eliminated in the Block II spacecraft. Fire safety was also enhanced in many other ways including protecting wire bundles more effectively and the use of fire resistant materials in the spacesuit used by astronauts.

I hope this is helpful to you. Thank you for your interest in the White Eagle Aerospace!

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