June 21, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Next Monday, we should be celebrating the 44th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 1, the start of the programme that would eventually take man to the moon in 1969. I say we should be celebrating this anniversary, but of course it didn’t actually turn out that way. On 27th January 1967, just over three weeks before the launch was due to take place, tragedy struck: a fire broke out in the rocket’s capsule, killing all three astronauts on board. By the time NASA launch control workers could open the capsule hatch, this is what the interior looked like…

Image by NASA

On a late summer’s day in Texas, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy announced his nation’s intention to go to the moon by the end of the decade, he made it clear that he was prepared for the potential setbacks which could occur along the way.  During his speech at Rice stadium, which lasted over a quarter of an hour on a swelteringly hot day, Kennedy quoted William Bradford, founder of the Plymouth Bay colony in 1603: “all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.” It is this courage and resolve which ultimately enabled the US to triumph over the Soviet Union. However, this resolve was surely tested to the absolute limits by the fateful events of Apollo 1. Following this tragedy, it wouldn’t be until almost two years later that the US would once again launched a manned spaceflight.

The three Apollo 1 astronauts were conducting a series of routine launch tests, just over three weeks before they were set to go into space. At 1 p.m. the astronauts entered the capsule, sitting atop an unfuelled Saturn I B rocket. After over five hours of tests, one of the astronauts reported, “Fire, I smell fire.” Two seconds later, another was heard to say, “Fire in the cockpit.” The fire spread throughout the cabin in a matter of seconds. The last crew communication ended 17 seconds after the start of the fire, followed by loss of all telemetry.

The Apollo capsule’s hatch could only open inward and was held closed by a number of ratchet-operated latches. Because the atmospheric pressure within the capsule was considerably higher than that outside, the capsule had to be vented before it could be opened. Under ideal conditions, it would still take around 90 seconds to open the hatch. NASA technicians tried to prise the hatch open, but were repeatedly driven back by the heat and smoke. By the time they succeeded in getting the hatch open, roughly 5 minutes after the fire had started, the astronauts had already perished, probably within the first 30 seconds, due to smoke inhalation and burns. The pure oxygen atmosphere within the capsule meant that the fire spread extremely rapidly.

Both NASA and the US Senate conducted far-reaching investigations following this incident and extensive changes were made to the Apollo capsule’s design for future missions. The reports from both the NASA and the Senate investigations can be found below:



Three astronauts, Lt. Col. Virgil I. Grissom, a veteran of Mercury and Gemini missions; Lt. Col. Edward H. White, the astronaut who had performed the first United States extravehicular activity during the Gemini program; and Roger B. Chaffee, an astronaut preparing for his first space flight, died in this tragic accident.

Fortunately, the NASA team members did not allow themselves to be deterred by this tragedy. Instead, they learnt from it and used its lessons to make them stronger. Just as much as the liquid hydrogen-oxygen mixture within the Saturn V rocket’s tanks, it is this attitude and determination which eventually propelled Apollo 11 to the moon.

In the speech referenced earlier from 1962, John F. Kennedy also said the following:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.