Apollo I Crew

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Apollo I Crew

Shortly before 1 o'clock on the afternoon of January 27, 1967, three men rode a noisy metal elevator to the top of a steel tower at Launch Complex 34-A at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee would shortly become the first Americans to perish while performing duties directly associated with spaceflight.

The task before these three men and their 1,000 support personnel was known as a plugs-out test. Spacecraft 012 was scheduled to ride a Saturn IB into space on mission AS-204, the first piloted flight, the following month. The plugs-out test was designed to verify that the spacecraft and launch vehicle could operate on internal power only, after all electrical, environmental, and ground checkout cables had been disconnected.

At the time of the AS-204 test Grissom was a veteran space traveler. He had flown the second suborbital flight of the Mercury Program in the Liberty Bell 7 and the highly successful Gemini II mission with Astronaut John Young. Born on April 3, 1926, in Mitchell, Indiana, Grissom was the oldest of four children. After finishing high school he enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1944 but was discharged in November 1945 after the end of World War II. Grissom completed a bachelor of sciences degree in mechanical engineering at Purdue University in 1950 and then reenlisted in the Air Force and earned his pilot's wings. He served in the Korean conflict, flying 100 missions in an F-86 Sabre-jet. After several training assignments he became a test pilot at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and then was selected to be one of the original seven Project Mercury astronauts.

Edward H. White II was born on November 14, 1930, in San Antonio, Texas. When he was twelve years old, his father, Major General Edward White, took him up for a flight in a trainer and allowed him to fly the plane. After graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, White joined the United States Air Force in 1952 and flew the F-86 Sabre and F-100 SuperSabre aircraft. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a master of sciences degree in aeronautical engineering in 1959. He then won test pilot credentials and was transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. There he flew big cargo planes through the parabolic arc that induced the sensation of weightlessness, and John Glenn and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton were among his passengers. In September 1962 White was selected to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) second group of astronauts.

Roger Bruce Chaffee was born on February 15, 1935, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At the age of seven he was treated to his first flight on a short trip above Lake Michigan. Chaffee and his father spent hours building model airplanes from scratch. While growing up he became an Eagle Scout and developed an interest in music, electric trains, and target shooting. He received a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University on June 2, 1957 and won his gold Navy pilot's wings early in 1959. During his career he flew photo reconnaissance missions out of Jacksonville Naval Air Station, many over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as some over Cape Canaveral to support its buildup as part of the piloted space program. Chaffee was chosen to be a member of NASA's third class of fourteen astronauts on October 18, 1963.

The three men had been training together for almost a year and had followed their spacecraft along the production line. They became intimately familiar with all eighty-eight subsystems and with the positions of hundreds of switches and controls in the cockpit. They requested that many changes be made in the vehicle. For example, a pyrotechnic device to blow off the Crew Access Hatch in the event of an emergency was deleted. Also, they insisted that many Velcro panels be placed around the cockpit so that they could hang the checkout lists in plain view. Later, some of the changes they won were found to be contributing factors to the fire.

Almost from the moment the astronauts entered the cockpit the crew and the test team encountered difficulties. A bad odor in the breathing supply, false master alarms, and communications problems caused the test to drag on into the early evening hours. At 6:31 P.M., as the team prepared to pick up the test in earnest, one of the astronauts almost casually announced over the communications circuits: "Fire. I smell fire." Two seconds later White insistently repeated: "Fire in the cockpit!" Although several nearby technicians and the astronauts within attempted to open the crew access hatch, the three men were overcome by smoke and died.

The investigation that followed led to thousands of design changes and revisions. An explosively actuated hatch was installed in all future Apollos. The use of flammable materials in the cockpit was limited. New nonflammable materials were designed into every system possible. The ground atmosphere in the capsule was changed from pure oxygen to an oxygen-nitrogen mixture.

After a delay of a year and a half, the Apollo 4 mission was launched to check out the entire system in low Earth orbit . The test went smoothly, and America was once again on the way to the Moon. The AS-204 mission was renamed Apollo I in honor of the crew.

see also Apollo (volume 3); Emergencies (volume 3); Escape Plans (volume 3); Gemini (volume 3); Launch Sites (volume 3); Mercury Program (volume 3); Oxygen Atmosphere in Spacecraft (volume 3).

Roger E. Koss


Gray, Mike. Angle of Attack: Harrison Storms and the Race to the Moon. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Kerrod, Robin. The Illustrated History of NASA Anniversary Edition. New York: GalleryBooks, 1986.

Internet Resources

Apollo. NASA Headquarters Public Affairs. <http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/Apollo204/>.

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Apollo I Crew

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