The Apollo Mission Where Everyone Died

All but four astronauts who ever set foot on the Moon have now passed on, yet that was only part of Apollo’s unfortunate legacy.

First was a tragic fire on the launch pad that claimed three lives: Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee – an event which fundamentally altered NASA’s moon program.

The Fire

An explosion that ignited in NASA’s command module during a test designed to prepare them for liftoff claimed three astronauts’ lives, dealing a devastating blow to its lunar landing plans and creating widespread outrage within its ranks. An investigation was then carried out, taking one year before humans again took to space travel.

On January 27, 1967, Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee perished in a horrendous accident that rivaled that of T-38 jet crash that had claimed Theodore Freeman’s life a few months earlier. A fire broke out at Kennedy Space Center during testing of Apollo 1, filling the cabin with pure oxygen; killing all three pilots before ever making orbit.

Investigators were never able to ascertain with certainty the source of this fire; however, speculation among experts suggests arcing electricity may have ignited combustible materials in the capsule, which had been pressurized to 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi), just two pounds higher than atmospheric pressure. When combined with its contents of flammable materials and pure oxygen, this caused rapid fire spread.

At 6:31 p.m., Grissom called ground control to report there was “an issue with the capsule.” Within minutes he reported they had a fire in their cockpit, with members trying to open their hatch; unfortunately, however, this fire had burned through and through until its heat had burned through both halves of the hatch opening, melting some space suits before sucking them inside where they died from asphyxiation.

After the disaster occurred, Americans sat shocked in front of televisions and newspapers. People felt anger toward North American Aviation and NASA for allowing it to happen and mourned the deaths of three heroes: Grissom was 40; White 36 and Chaffee 29 both serving in various capacities at NASA before their respective deaths.

NASA conducted an investigation of what caused this fire and found both technical and managerial lapses contributed to it, so they altered their procedures and enhanced safety measures on equipment to avoid another devastating incident such as this one.

The Smoke

The deaths of three astronauts on Apollo 1 in January 1967 was a devastating setback to national trust in NASA and their moon landing mission, pushing back a full lunar mission by several months despite NASA having conducted seven other successful spaceflights prior to that tragedy. People began questioning why so much money should be used on space exploration when poverty and hunger still plagued so much of society.

Commander Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger Chaffee became the first astronauts to die during spaceflight during an accident during a routine launch pad test when an electrical spark ignited their cabin’s pure oxygen atmosphere and caused their deaths.

As soon as the fire spread, it quickly trapped their crew inside their cramped spacecraft filled with toxic smoke. They desperately attempted to open its three-piece side hatch in hopes that escape might be possible; but as heat and smoke intensified it became evident that their fate was sealed.

As the fire spread, would-be rescuers were forced back by waves of heat and what pad leader Don Babbitt described as “heavy thick grey smoke.” Although they attempted to gain entry, their attempts failed when the capsule’s tight interior proved sealed shut against their efforts.

Within minutes, word came over the PA system that three of their astronauts had died in an explosion involving their command module, yet its cause remains unknown.

After the tragedy, many Americans began questioning whether lunar exploration was worth its high costs in terms of lives and money. NASA faced resistance from Congress as well as protests by civil rights leaders who condemned allocating so much funding toward space exploration while poverty continued to exist here on Earth.

But NASA was determined to move forward, and soon thereafter Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins would make history by becoming the first humans ever to set foot on the lunar surface.

The Rescue

On Jan. 27, 1967, America’s space program experienced its most devastating setback when Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger B. Chaffee perished in an accidental fire which broke out during a launch pad test. Their deaths sent shockwaves through society; funeral services with full military honors were held for them as memorials were conducted to remember these brave individuals whose deaths stunned us all. NASA conducted extensive investigations of this accident that identified both technical and management lapses; congressional committee hearings took place; NASA created plans for future tragedies to avoid such tragedies recurring.

NASA’s Moon landing project suffered further when investors lost trust, though this did not break America’s resolve to reach the Moon. President Lyndon B. Johnson championed space exploration from its inception; winning against Soviet Russia would cement America’s advantage against them during the Cold War era and reach the Moon was crucial in doing so.

Johnson was determined to push ahead with his plan of landing men on the Moon despite setbacks, having devised an alternate solution as part of his secret backup plan.

“Plan A” involved sending two astronauts into lunar orbit before transitioning them onto an LM (lunar module) for landing. However, this approach required an extended flight path, making astronauts susceptible to mission abort scenarios and leaving them vulnerable in case a mission abort occurred.

NASA and MIT collaborated on an effort to safeguard against this possibility by telling the computer on the lunar module that Abort sequence had already been activated once; any subsequent signals of Abort activation would simply be ignored by this solution. Though not completely effective – an activation could short-circuit equipment again – this solution proved far preferable than what had come before it.

Charles “Pete” Conrad and Alan Bean made history during Apollo 14 when they set foot on the Moon for an ExtraVehicular Activity on EVA to inscribe initials of their daughter onto its surface; these initials would remain there regardless of weather conditions on EVA.

The Rebirth

Every January at Cape Canaveral, families and friends gather around a vast concrete and steel hulk, placing winter blooms near where Apollo 1 spacecraft once stood to honor three astronauts who perished when their command module caught fire during launch rehearsal test on Jan 27, 1967, instantly killing them all due to pure oxygen environments in its cockpit.

Disaster struck the American space program when Apollo 1’s three astronauts perished during its mission on Jan. 27, 1967, shattering its progress with just occasional setbacks. Up until that point, eight astronauts and cosmonaut candidates had perished due to airplane crashes or vehicle tests; Apollo 1 marked the first such death in space itself. Furthermore, extensive redesigns had to be done on its command module following the accident, adding 18 months onto their schedule before NASA could try sending men into orbit again.

Yet in spite of tragedy, resolve for reaching the moon only deepened. Now more than ever it was seen as an urgent geopolitical priority and President John F. Kennedy pledged that US boots would set foot on lunar surface before end of decade.

Apollo 8 finally took off on December 21, 1968 despite delays, with James Lovell, Commander Frank Borman and backup pilot William Anders aboard. It traveled into low Earth orbit before testing its Command/Service Module that would connect to lunar module for landing on Moon.

After 10 orbits, the astronauts left the command module through an interconnecting tunnel into Eagle, their lunar module. Deploying scientific instruments and taking photographs around the moon’s orbit, they then spent over two hours on its surface, deploying a lunar rover and collecting samples for further research.

Returning to their ship, they shut down its systems in order to conserve power for their return trip home before waiting for its entry back into Earth’s atmosphere.

As astronauts prepared for a reentry burn, an issue with Odyssey’s thruster system caused it to spin out of control, with its main engine having also stopped functioning, forcing crew members out of lunar module and onto rescue ship for evacuation. One of Odyssey’s heat shields also disintegrated during ejection resulting in depressurization that caused its sinking into ocean before being recovered later by rescue vessel.

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