By Alan Hoffman on February 8, 2017

earth shadow spaceOn January 27, 1967, the Apollo 1 spacecraft burst into flames during a ground test at Cape Canaveral. Three astronauts—Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee—died in the conflagration.  The fire and the loss of the astronauts traumatized NASA, which had a six year record of spaceflight without loss of life.

The investigation which followed determined that the fire was caused by a spark of unknown origin, likely within the spacecraft’s wiring, and the 100% oxygen environment within the spacecraft (which had been adopted by NASA to save weight, but proved a lethal design decision, because any spark could ignite a deadly fire within the spacecraft).   Additionally, the crew hatch of Apollo 1 was bolted in place and opened inward, making it impossible the astronauts to escape.  As a result, the Apollo 1 crew had no chance. They were literally incinerated by a fire so intense that it burst the spacecraft’s pressure vessel.

That was bad enough. But there was more.  Astronaut Mike Collins, who later served as Command Module (CM) pilot on Apollo 11 and had liaison responsibility with North American Aircraft, the CM contractor, wrote[1]:

“It soon became apparent that North American had a long way to go before it could match the smooth professionalism of the McDonnell test teams, veterans of Mercury and Gemini . .  . At work, craftsmen seemed more interested in talking about getting their campers up into the High Sierra on weekends than they did in explaining why the last test sequence had been goofed.  Somehow go-go land didn’t seem the place for the meticulous attention and the very square discipline required to assemble these machines of unparalleled complexity.”

After the fire, an inspection of the next Apollo on the production line discovered more than 1,400 wiring discrepancies.

The Apollo 1 fire resulted from serious defects in both the design and manufacture of the spacecraft. While the accident investigation could not determine the exact origin of the fire, the contributing causes included the sealed cabin pressurized with pure oxygen; extensive combustible materials in the cabin; vulnerable wiring and vulnerable plumbing carrying a combustible and corrosive coolant; and inadequate provisions for the crew to escape. The astronauts’ widows sued North American and settled their claims against it five years later.[2] For a time it appeared that the entire Apollo program might come to a halt. But it did not.

NASA and North American redesigned the CM to use a mixed oxygen-nitrogen cabin atmosphere, similar to the natural environment, greatly reducing the fire hazard. They also redesigned the hatch so that the astronauts could readily open it without external assistance. And North American reformed its assembly and quality control procedures to eliminate manufacturing faults.

Twenty months after the fire a greatly improved Apollo spacecraft was launched into orbit and completed a successful 14-day mission with astronauts Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisle. Three months later, Apollo 8 carried Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders from the earth to the moon. They read the Old Testament to a world-wide audience from lunar orbit, photographed the earth rising above the lunar horizon, and returned to earth, completing an audacious flight which put the Apollo program back on track. In July, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Ed Aldrin fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge to land on the moon and return safely to earth before the end of the decade–an extraordinary recovery from the 1967 fire.

Apollo made six more trips to the moon, ending with Apollo 17 in December, 1972. One further failure marred this record, when a defective oxygen tank exploded on Apollo 13 in April, 1970. Heroic efforts by NASA and contractor engineers, astronauts on the ground and the astronauts aboard the spacecraft were required to accomplish the safe recovery of the crew, narrowly averting another tragedy as portrayed in the film starring Tom Hanks.

Having retired the Shuttle, NASA and its contractors are developing new spacecraft to take humans to space. There is no margin for error in these machines. As Gene Kranz, who led the rescue of Apollo 13, said: failure is not an option.

[1] Michael Collins, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey (Ballantine Books, 1974), pp. 258 – 259.

[2] Courtney G. Brown, James M. Grimwood and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft, NASA Publication SP-1205 (Government Printing Office, 1979), pp. 221- 224.