Apollo 1: The Fatal Fire (2023)

By Elizabeth Howell

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Apollo 1: The Fatal Fire (1)

The Apollo program changed forever on Jan. 27, 1967, when a flash fire swept through the Apollo 1 command module during a launch rehearsal test. Despite the best efforts of the ground crew, the three men inside perished. It would take more than 18 months of delays and extensive redesigns before NASA sent any men into space.

NASA had a lofty goal, set byPresident John F. Kennedyin 1961, to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. Earlier Mercury and Gemini flights had been the first steps toward that goal, testing how humans behaved in space and how to do technical spacecraft procedures such as rendezvous. Now the Apollo missions would take astronauts all the way to the moon for orbital missions and landing missions. The first manned mission — an Earth-orbiting mission — was originally designated Apollo Saturn-204, or AS-204, but was later renamed Apollo 1.

(Video) Apollo 1's Fatal Fire Almost Ended the Spaceflight Program | Apollo

Read more: Apollo landers, Neil Armstrong’s bootprint and other human artifacts on Moon officially protected by new US law (opens in new tab)

The Apollo 1 fire was a difficult time for NASA and its astronauts, but the improvements in astronaut safety allowed the agency to complete the rest of the program with no further fatalities. The agency also met Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the moon in 1969, during Apollo 11.

NASA had a special ceremony honoring the Apollo 1 astronauts on the50th anniversary of their deathsin 2017, which included unveiling a new exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center showing the hatches of the damaged command module.

Apollo 1: The Fatal Fire (2)

The astronauts

The Apollo 1 crew commander,Virgil "Gus" Grissom, was an Air Force veteran of the Korean War. He was chosen was among NASA's first group of seven astronauts, the Mercury Seven. Grissom was America's second person in space in 1961. On that mission, Mercury's Liberty Bell 7, the hatch door blew for unknown reasons upon splashdown. Grissom ended up in the water and was rescued by a helicopter (which at first tried, in vain, to pick up the spacecraft; the spacecraft was later pulled from the ocean floor in 1999).

Some in the Astronaut Office were skeptical that Grissom's reputation would recover (many believed Grissom blew the hatch; he swore he didn't). However, Grissom successfully commanded the first Gemini flight, Gemini 3, and was selected to do the same for Apollo.

Fellow spaceflight veteranEd White, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, was the first American to make a spacewalk, on Gemini 4 in 1965. The images of him soaring in space for 23 minutes are still frequently seen today; it is consideredone of history's most memorable spacewalks.

Roger Chaffeewas a seasoned Navy lieutenant commander who joined the program in 1963. Although a rookie in space, he had spent years supporting the Gemini program, most publicly as CapCom on Gemini 4. Now getting a chance to fly after five years in the program, he said, "I think it will be a lot of fun."

Apollo 1: The Fatal Fire (3)

(Video) Apollo 1: the fatal fire

Gone in an instant

Every astronaut in the Apollo program had flight experience, and many were test pilots. They were used to seeing machines under development and dealing with delays, and assessing the airplanes' readiness for flight. In the view of many of these astronauts, theApollo command modulejust wasn't ready yet. Engineering changes were still in progress as NASA prepared for the countdown test.

On his last visit home in Texas, Jan. 22, 1967, Grissomgrabbed a lemon off a citrus tree in the backyard. His wife, Betty, asked what he was going to do with it. "I'm going to hang it on that spacecraft," he answered as he kissed her goodbye. He hung it on the flight simulator after he arrived at the Cape.

The morning of the test, the crew suited up and detected a foul odor in the breathing oxygen, which took about an hour to fix. Then the communications system acted up. Shouting through the noise, Grissom vented: "How are we going to get to the moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?"

With communications problems dragging on, the practice countdown was held. Then at 6:31 p.m. came a frightening word from the spacecraft: "Fire."

Deke Slayton, who oversaw crew selections at NASA and was present for the test, could see white flames in a closed-circuit television monitor pointing toward the spacecraft. The crew struggled to get out. Technicians raced to the scene, trying to fight the fire with extinguishers amid faulty breathing masks.

Video: Apollo 1 Remembered – Report from the Archives

At last, the door was open, but it was too late.

The aftermath and changes

A NASA review board found a stray spark (probably from damaged wires near Grissom's couch) started the fire in the pure oxygen environment. Fed by flammable features such as nylon netting and foam pads, the blaze quickly spread. [Infographic: How the Apollo 1 Fire Happened]

Further, the hatch door — intended to keep the astronauts and the atmosphere securely inside the spacecraft — turned out to be too tough to open under the unfortunate circumstances. The astronauts had struggled in vain to open the door during the fire, but the pressure inside the spacecraft sealed the door and made it impossible to open.

Apollo 1: The Fatal Fire (4)

(Video) "We Have a Fire in The Cockpit" | Apollo 1 Disaster *Sad Story Of Three Astronauts*

The board listed adamning set of circumstances, failures and recommendationsfor future spacecraft designers to consider.

The U.S. Senate conducted its own investigation and hearings andpublished recommendationsof its own, while saying NASA's failure to report its problems with Apollo "was an unquestionably serious dereliction."

Several changes were made to the design of the Apollo spacecraft to improve crew safety. The flammable oxygen environment for ground tests was replaced with a nitrogen-oxygen mix. Flammable items were removed. A new respect developed between the astronauts and the contractors concerning design changes, which were implemented more effectively. Most notably, the door was completely redesigned so that it would open in mere seconds when the crew needed to get out in a hurry. [Photos: TheApollo 1Fire]

Decades later, NASA recalls the Apollo 1 incident every January in an annualDay of Remembrance. It also honors the Challenger and Columbia crews, who died in 1986 and 2003, respectively. Further,anexhibit honoring the Apollo 1 crew was opened at the Kennedy Space Center in 2017,displaying the hatchesthat were on the spacecraft. The exhibit was done in consultation with the astronauts' families.

Additional resources:

  • Out of space, NASA is demolishing Apollo and space shuttle launch platform (opens in new tab)
  • NASA: Apollo 1 photos (opens in new tab)

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Apollo 1: The Fatal Fire (5)

(Video) Investigation into deadly Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee 1968

Elizabeth Howell

Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace

(Video) The Horrible Apollo 1 Disaster


What happened in the fatal fire of Apollo 1? ›

The mission never flew; a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34 on January 27 killed all three crew members—Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee—and destroyed the command module (CM).

How badly were the Apollo 1 astronauts burned? ›

"The smoke was so thick that Jim couldn't see the spacecraft, but could only feel around for the [hatch]," Clemmons wrote. "He was now nearly blind from the acrid smoke. Jerry was almost as bad off. Both were so hoarse they couldn't talk."

Who were the 3 astronauts that died in the fire? ›

A launch pad fire during Apollo program tests at Cape Canaveral, Florida, kills astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee. An investigation indicated that a faulty electrical wire inside the Apollo 1 command module was the probable cause of the fire.

What were the last words of Apollo 1? ›

The mission never took place, however, as less than a month earlier, on January 27, a fire engulfed the cabin and burnt all three members alive. Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee all lost their lives that day, with the words, "we're burning up", being the last thing they said.

What went wrong on Apollo 1? ›

Apollo 1 was expected to fly to Earth orbit later in 1967 with astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White on board. During a test on the launch pad, however, a fire erupted and rapidly asphyxiated all three astronauts.

What did Apollo catch on fire? ›

Apollo 1: A fatal fire. The Apollo program changed forever on Jan. 27, 1967, when a flash fire swept through the Apollo 1 command module during a launch rehearsal test. Despite the best efforts of the ground crew, the three men inside perished.

Why couldn t Apollo 1 astronauts get out? ›

Because the cabin had been filled with a pure oxygen atmosphere at normal pressure for the test and there had been many hours for the oxygen to permeate all the material in the cabin, the fire spread rapidly and the astronauts had no chance to get the hatch open.

Why did Apollo 1 have 100% oxygen? ›

Pure oxygen was used in the case of the Apollo I because the alternative of using mixed gases did not allow for a breathable atmosphere. In addition, the fire safety checks assumed that there would be no flammable hazards that could pose any threat to the astronauts.

What was the autopsy of the Apollo 1 astronauts? ›

Autopsy reports of the Apollo 1 crew confirmed primary cause of death as cardiac arrest caused by high concentrations of carbon monoxide. The report stated extensive burns were suffered postmortem. NASA flight director Gene Kranz held himself and NASA accountable for the Apollo 1 fire.

When was the last astronaut killed? ›

In 1971 all three of the Soyuz 11 mission crew died when their capsule depressurised before re-entry on their way back from humanity's first ever stay on a space station, Salyut 1.

Did the Apollo 13 crew survive? ›

The command module of Apollo 13 entered Earth's atmosphere and splashed down on target on April 17 at 1:07 PM Eastern Standard Time. The mission has been referred to as a successful failure, in that all the crew members survived a catastrophic accident.

Has any astronauts been lost in space? ›

During spaceflight. As of March 2021, in-flight accidents have killed 15 astronauts and 4 cosmonauts, in five separate incidents. Three of them had flown above the Kármán line (edge of space), and one was intended to do so. In each case, the entire crew was killed.

What is the famous line of Apollo? ›

Their moon-bound spacecraft wrecked by an oxygen tank explosion on April 13, 1970, the astronauts urgently radioed, “Houston, we've had a problem here.” Screenwriters for the 1995 film 'Apollo 13' wanted to punch that up. Thus was born, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Were the bodies recovered from Apollo 1? ›

Once it finally did (6 hours after the accident), it took and an hour and a half for the bodies of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee to be recovered from the burned out husk of Apollo 1. The heat of the fire had fused the astronauts to the cabin's nylon interior. The official cause of death was asphyxiation.

Which Apollo burst into flames? ›

It was 6:31 p.m. on Jan. 27, 1967, when a fire started in Apollo 1 killing Grissom, 40, one of the seven original Mercury astronauts; White, 36, the first American to walk in space; and Chaffee, 31, a rookie awaiting his first flight in space.

Who died in the Apollo 1 fire? ›

Astronauts Gus Grissom (left), Ed White (middle), and Roger Chaffee (right), died on Jan. 27, 1967, during a flash fire inside the Apollo 1 crew capsule during a launch test rehearsal.

What happened to the Apollo 1 capsule after the fire? ›

The scorched Apollo 1 capsule remains locked away in storage. But NASA is offering visitors at Kennedy Space Center a look at the most symbolic part: the hatch that trapped Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in their burning spacecraft on Jan. 27, 1967.

Who were the bodies in the Apollo 1 disaster? ›

Once it finally did (6 hours after the accident), it took and an hour and a half for the bodies of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee to be recovered from the burned out husk of Apollo 1. The heat of the fire had fused the astronauts to the cabin's nylon interior. The official cause of death was asphyxiation.


1. Apollo 1 - The fire Disaster (1967)
2. The Truth About The Apollo 1 Fire Disaster | Trajectory | Spark
3. How a 'Non-Hazardous' NASA Mission Turned Deadly
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4. Apollo 1 fire rocked NASA, U.S., world 50 years ago: 60-Second Know-It-All
5. Apollo 1 Fire
6. ‘Got a fire in the cockpit!’: The Apollo 1 tragedy that killed three astronauts
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