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Fire In The Capsule: Lessons From Apollo 1 Disaster

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NASA recently marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, where the module of the spacecraft caught fire and killed astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee.

The three crewmen were working on a launch pad test inside the space capsule at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Jan. 27, 1967 when disaster hit and changed the face of U.S. spaceflight and research forever. What was supposed to be a routine rehearsal and run-through of emergency procedures became a fatal tragedy.

Fire ‘Out Of Nowhere’

In an interview at NASA Langley Research Center, space historian and author Andrew Chaikin said that the fire in the capsule came out of nowhere. Chaikin, the author of several books and articles, recently spoke before employees of NASA Langley.

A weird odor emerged from the three astronauts’ oxygen store, and there was a continuing communications problem between the crew in the command module and NASA experts in the nearby “block house.”

In audio recordings, Grissom was heard saying that there was a fire in the capsule. About 15 seconds afterward, another voice — this time Chaffee’s — called it a “bad fire.” What followed was an unintelligible call for help until the radio finally went silent, recalled Chaikin in a Daily Press report.

It only took seconds for the flash fire to suffocate the crew and rage into a full-blown tragedy that nearly doomed the U.S. space program.

What saved the program, according to Chaikin, were the nation’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, as well as the late President John F. Kennedy’s desire to land an American on the moon by the decade’s end.

“[T]he recovery is one of the most incredible episodes in the history of space exploration and in the history of human endeavor,” said the historian, citing that disagreements still did occur within NASA and its contractors, but that they kept their eyes on the prize.

Lessons From The Half-Century-Old Tragedy

The fire’s root cause was almost a no-brainer: a spark that took place inside a sealed module that is filled with highly flammable, very pressured, pure oxygen. Underneath the obvious, however, was what Chaikin dubbed a “stovepipe” mindset in the space agency, where some individuals either ignored or dismissed dissenting opinions from others.

He said such stovepipes should be torn down, and that NASA personnel should think like a walker on the high wire.

"If you were physically on the high wire, you'd never lose your edge, because you know, 'One false move and I'm dead,'” Chaikin said, warning against complacency and the lack of self-doubt in such “extraordinary” missions.

He added that this very mindset also factored in the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, where contrasting voices on the dangers of failing O-rings and dislodged pieces of foam insulation were left unheard.

Chaikin believes that the thinking over at NASA has changed since those unfortunate events, but fear that people could be falling back into bad habits.

There were 19 full years nearly to the day of the Apollo 1 fire when the Challenger tragedy happened, and then the Columbia accident occurred 17 years afterward. It’s about listening to those with a different opinion and ensuring nothing is taken for granted, Chaikin said.

NASA Langley has debuted a traveling exhibit to mark the research center’s 100th anniversary. The exhibit features an interactive look through the center’s century of science, aeronautics, and space feats, interesting pieces of history housed in a specially designed 18-wheeler.

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