Apollo 1 Crew

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Apollo 1 Crew

Died January 27, 1967 (Cape Canaveral, Florida)

American astronauts

On January 27, 1967, the first step toward putting an American on the Moon ended in tragedy. That day, astronauts Roger Chaffee (1935–1967), Gus Grissom (1926–1967), and Edward White (1930–1967) died aboard their Apollo 1 spacecraft. They had been conducting tests on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) in Florida, when a fire broke out in their crew module. The accident was a severe blow to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which had given high priority to Project Apollo, the U.S. program that would send humans to the Moon. Apollo 1 was to be the first in a series of manned Moon flights, but the accident forced a temporary halt to the program and NASA safety procedures underwent extensive review.

"Fire in the cockpit."

Edward White

Soviets triumph in space war

NASA initiated Project Apollo at a time when national pride was at stake. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) had vowed that the United States would put a man on the Moon within the next ten years. His vision captured the imagination of the American

people, and this spirit of adventure greatly expanded the mission of NASA. Kennedy's speech immediately followed the achievement of astronaut Alan Shepard (1923–1998), who had become the first American in space less than three weeks earlier. He piloted a Mercury space capsule 115 miles (185 kilo-meters) above Earth's surface and 302 miles (486 kilometers) across the Atlantic Ocean. Although the trip lasted for only about fifteen minutes, his journey was almost technically perfect. But Shepard was not the first human in space: On April 12, Soviet cosmonaut (astronaut) Yuri Gagarin (1934–1968; see entry) had made a nearly complete orbit of Earth aboard the spacecraft Vostok 1. Gagarin's flight, which had been surrounded by intense secrecy, represented a technical triumph for the Soviet Union. Shepard had briefly flown in space, whereas Gagarin had virtually circled Earth.

Americans saw the Gagarin flight as yet another Soviet victory in the "space race." The space race was part of the Cold War (1945–91), a period of hostile relations between the former Soviet Union and the United States that began at the end of World War II (1939–45). Not only were the two superpowers involved in an arms race for military superiority, but they were also competing for dominance in space. The first major event in the space race had occurred in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik 1 satellite (an object that orbits in space) to study the atmosphere of Earth. This achievement surprised the world and sent shock waves through American society. Sputnik 1 was a sign that the Soviet Union was moving ahead in the Cold War. In 1958, the United States responded by creating NASA, which integrated U.S. space research agencies and established an astronaut training program.

The first stage of the NASA space program was Project Mercury. The goal was to develop the basic technology for manned space flight and investigate a human's ability to survive and perform in space. Shepard's flight was proof of Project Mercury's success, but Gagarin's effort showed that not enough progress was being made by the United States. Under pressure to match the Russian feat as soon as possible, NASA chose John Glenn (1921–; see entry) to be the first American to orbit Earth. On February 20, 1962, Glenn successfully made three orbits aboard the Friendship 7, another Mercury mission. In 1964, NASA initiated Project Gemini. This program provided astronauts with experience in returning to Earth from space as well as successfully linking space vehicles and "walking" in space. Gemini also involved the launching of a series of unmanned satellites, which would gain information about the Moon and its surface to determine whether humans could survive there.

The Apollo spacecraft

One major result of the U.S. space program was Project Apollo, named for the Greek god of the Sun. The first challenge was to design, develop, and test an Apollo spacecraft and related technology that would place a human on the Moon. With the support of NASA, Werhner von Braun (1912–1977; see entry) and his colleagues—who developed the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany during World War II and after ward immigrated to the United States—developed the three-stage Saturn 5 rocket to launch the spacecraft. The Saturn worked in stages (separate functions), a concept that was originated by Russian engineer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935; see entry) and tested by American physicist Robert Goddard (1882–1945; see entry). The rocket's first two stages propelled the spacecraft out of Earth's gravity into space and then dropped off. The third stage put the spacecraft into Earth orbit. The rocket then refired to send the spacecraft at a speed of 25,000 miles (40,225 kilometers) per hour toward the Moon, with the third stage dropping off along the way.

The spacecraft itself consisted of the command module (similar to the cockpit of an airplane), where the astronauts were stationed; the service module, which contained electrical power and fuel; and the lunar module, which, after entering the Moon's orbit, could separate from the rest of the spacecraft and carry the astronauts to the surface of the Moon. The lunar module, which stood 23 feet (7 meters) high and weighed 15 tons (13.6 metric tons), rested first on spiderlike legs used for landing and then on a launch platform for departure from the Moon's surface. The lunar module lacked heat shields (panels that protect against intense heat) and operated only in the vacuum of space. After launching itself from the Moon's surface, the lunar module would go into lunar orbit and dock with the command module, which would then readjust its course to head back to Earth. The service module powered the spacecraft on the return trip, falling away prior to reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

The Apollo 1 crew

Once the Apollo spacecraft had been built, the next step was to choose a crew. Gus Grissom was the commander, Edward White was the command pilot, and Roger Chaffee was the pilot. Their mission was to be the first manned test in Earth orbit of the spacecraft that would eventually take people to the Moon.

Gus Grissom

Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom was born on April 3, 1926, in Mitchell, Indiana. While growing up, he was fascinated by aviation, and he was determined to become a pilot. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1944. After World War II, he enrolled at Purdue University in Indiana, earning a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1950. He again enlisted in the military and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the air force. During the Korean War (1950–53), he flew combat missions, for which he won several medals. He was serving as a test pilot at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio when NASA was seeking pilots to explore the problems of manned space flight for Project Mercury. Grissom volunteered for this project, and in 1959 he was one of seven military test pilots chosen to become the first American astronauts.

In 1961, Grissom participated in a test flight of the Mercury spacecraft Liberty Bell 7. The mission succeeded without incident until after the spacecraft landed, as planned, in the ocean. While helicopters approached to retrieve the capsule, the hatch blew off prematurely (an accident that was never satisfactorily explained), but Grissom managed to leave the spacecraft before it sank. He became the second American to fly in space when he was command pilot on the Gemini spacecraft Molly Brown in 1965. He and crewmate John W. Young (1930–) tested such objectives as how to control the craft's landing point. In March 1966, Grissom was named commander of Apollo 1.

Edward White

Edward Higgins White II was born on November 14, 1930, in San Antonio, Texas. His father, Edward H. White, was a career air force officer and pioneer army balloonist and aviator. The family was living in Washington, D.C., when White was in high school. Since the District of Columbia has no representative in the U.S. Congress, he won appointment to the U.S. Military Academy by making himself known to as many congressmen as possible. He graduated from the academy in 1952 with a commission as a second lieutenant in the air force. While serving as a fighter pilot in Germany, White followed with interest the development of the manned spaceflight program and set out to qualify as an astronaut. He earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1959. After completing a test pilot certification program, he was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as a test pilot.

White applied for the astronaut program when NASA announced openings for a second group of trainees. He was accepted in 1962. Three years later, he was the pilot on Gemini 4, commanded by James A. McDivitt (1929–). Gemini 4 was the first long-duration flight (sixty-two revolutions from June 3 through June 7) in the U.S. manned spaceflight program.

During this mission, White became the first American to perform extravehicular activity, or "space walk," floating outside the spacecraft for twenty minutes over a distance of about 7,500 miles (12,068 kilometers). In 1966, White was named to the crew of Apollo 1.

Roger Chaffee

Roger Bruce Chaffee was born on February 15, 1935, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After graduating from high school, he attended the Illinois Institute of Technology for one year and then transferred to Purdue University. He received a bachelor

of science degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue in 1957. Commissioned an ensign in the navy that same year, he went through flight training and was subsequently assigned to a photographic squadron in Florida. In January 1963, Chaffee entered the Air Force Institute of Technology to work toward a master's degree.

When NASA announced that it was recruiting a third group of astronaut trainees, he applied and was selected in 1963. By the time he had completed basic astronaut training, the Gemini program was well under way and Apollo flights were being planned. Chaffee was assigned to flight-control communications systems and spacecraft control systems. In March 1966, he was selected as a crew member of Apollo 1.

Crew dies in fire

On January 27, 1967, the Apollo spacecraft, then called Apollo/Saturn 204, was scheduled to go into space in less than a month. At 1:00 p.m. that day, Grissom, White, and Chaffee entered the crew module on the launchpad at Cape Kennedy. They began conducting a "plugs-out" test. This test is an exact simulation of launch activities, or count, but without fuel in the rocket. Almost immediately the crew encountered minor problems that delayed the process. The count was suspended at 5:40 p.m. after a communications failure. Then, at 6:31 p.m. technicians in the control room, who were monitoring radio communications with the module, heard someone (later determined to be Chaffee) say, "Fire, I smell fire." At 6:33 p.m., they heard White say, "Fire in the cockpit." The voices then became garbled, but the last moments of the crew were clearly audible in the control room until the transmission was cut off at 6:48 p.m.

In the meantime, rescuers had rushed to the spacecraft, but it took them five minutes to open the hatch (door to the module). The hatch was secured by several latches that had to be pried loose. The hatch swung inward, so pressure had to be released before it could be pushed open and the crew members pulled out of the module. Efforts were made to resuscitate Grissom, Chaffee, and White, but by that time they were all dead. The fire had spread with incredible speed, for the atmosphere in the vehicle was pure oxygen and the materials inside were highly flammable. Within thirty seconds, the three crewmen were unconscious and probably completely asphyxiated (made unable to breathe) by toxic gases. They thus became the first American astronauts to die in an accident directly related to space activity. An investigating board concluded that the fire was most likely started by a spark from an electrical short circuit that ignited the flammable materials.

As a result of the accident, the Apollo program was temporarily delayed. After an extensive investigation, NASA issued new safety precautions. In the future, spacecraft would contain self-extinguishing materials, and a nitrogen-oxygen mixture would replace pure oxygen. The hatch door was

redesigned to swing outward, and an improved latch system allowed quick removal. In honor of Grissom, White, and Chafee, Apollo/Saturn 204 was officially renamed Apollo 1.

Space program takes new direction

The next Project Apollo missions were unmanned flights that tested the safety of the equipment. The first manned flight was Apollo 7 in October 1968. The most famous was Apollo 11, which successfully landed Neil Armstrong (1930–; see entry) and Buzz Aldrin (1930–; see entry) on the Moon. The last flight was Apollo 17 in December 1972, which ended one of the most productive periods of exploration in U.S. history. After Project Apollo, NASA concentrated its efforts on space shuttle missions to space stations. (A space shuttle is a vehicle that transports people and cargo between Earth and space. A space station is a scientific research laboratory that orbits in space.) By 2004, U.S. shuttles had made several missions to the International Space Station (ISS; see entry), a space research endeavor that involves astronauts from nations throughout the world.

Tragedy struck NASA two more times. In 1986, the shuttle Challenger (see entry) exploded shortly after launch, killing seven astronauts. In 2003, seven other astronauts died when the shuttle Columbia (see box in Challenger Crew entry) broke up over the western United States. Since Apollo 17, there have been no other flights to the Moon, either by the United States or any other nation. In 2003, however, China sent its first person into space (see Yang Liwei [1965–] entry) and announced plans to go to the Moon. In 2004, President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) renewed the U.S. commitment to a continuation of the Moon exploration program in the near future.

For More Information


Brooks, Courtney G., James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr. Chariots for Apollo. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1979.

Brubaker, Paul. Apollo 1 Tragedy: Fire in the Capsule. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2002.

Carpenter, M. Scott, Virgil I. Grissom, and others. We Seven, by the Astronauts Themselves. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962.

DeAngelis, Gina. The Apollo 1 and Challenger Disasters. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.

Greenberger, Robert. Gus Grissom: The Tragedy of Apollo 1. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2004.

Web Sites

"Apollo 1 Fire." AboutSpace.com.http://www.space.about.com/astronautbios/a/apollo1 (accessed on May 28, 2004).

"Apollo 1 Web site." NASA.http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/Apollo204/ (accessed on May 28, 2004).

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