The Half-Astrophysicist Blog

Remembering Apollo 1

On January 27th, 1967, the U.S suffered its first deaths in the manned space program. The Apollo 1 capsule was undergoing testing on the pad with astronauts White, Chaffee, and Grissom on board. The test were being done in a 100% oxygen atmosphere.

Somewhere, something sparked. Could have been a small short circuit. Could have even been static electricity. In a pure oxygen environment, fire spreads quickly. Velcro was everywhere in the capsule. Turns out Velcro is explosive in a pure oxygen setting.

The fire spread quickly and the astronauts could not escape. The hatch opened inward and the high pressure environment made it impossible to open the hatch.

Fortunately, their deaths were not in vain, but led to one of the most extensive safety reviews in history. We all know the future successes that came from this tragedy. The redesign is credited with helping Apollo 13 make it back to Earth safely as the electronics did not short out when they were restarted in spite of a lot of condensation.

NASA has a remembrance this week for all the astronauts they have lost (curiously enough, the three major accidents all happened in late January/early February).   Even though I was not yet born, Apollo 1 resonates with me.  When I watch shows on the space program, I always have the impending sense of dread as the Apollo I section draws near. Recovering from this tragedy makes the Apollo 11 triumph all the more powerful.


January 27, 2009 - Posted by | NASA

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