Remembering the Apollo One Fire

Apollo One
The 40th anniversary of a nearly forgotten tragedy passed almost unnoticed recently. Forty years ago, a fire on the launch pad killed three astronauts, and nearly killed President Kennedy's dream of sending men to the moon as well. Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell reports.

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On January 27th, 1967, the three astronauts who would be the first to fly the Apollo ship that would take Americans to the moon were killed when the pure oxygen they were breathing inside the craft ignited during a pre-flight test on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center. Just three weeks ago, NASA announced that the burned out spacecraft, which was kept in an un-controlled warehouse for 40 years, has been moved into an environmentally controlled facility outside Washington DC. NASA Spokesman J.D. Harrington says Apollo One is an important historical artifact that must be preserved, even though there are reasons for not putting it on public display.

"Some family members want it to become a national archive to remember the incident, and other family members don't want it to be put out in public, so for right now it's kind of in cold storage, so to speak, to preserve it until a decision is made some day in the future."

The Apollo One fire killed astronauts Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury astronauts and the second American to go into space, Ed White, the first American to walk in space, and rookie Roger Chaffee. Walt Cunningham was a member of the Apollo One backup crew, and today he says everybody was shocked and surprised that the pure oxygen atmosphere was to blame.

"It was really overlooked, the fact that the 100 percent oxygen would cause a fire that disastrous. We knew, we were physicists, engineers, you know, but we'd just gotten away with it forever."

Many people thought this disaster was the end for the space program, but NASA got to work and retooled Apollo, stopped using pure oxygen, and launched Apollo 7 in October 1968. Three more flights proved the design was good, and as safe as it could be, and in July 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Cunningham says the Apollo program would have failed without the lessons they learned from the Apollo One fire. While he wishes it hadn't happened, it did happen and he thinks NASA, Congress and the public should get over their obsession with safety, because astronauts know they're in a dangerous business.

"We are living in a time of risk avoidance, you know, we try to fight wars without anybody getting killed, for example, and we don't think anybody should get killed flying into space, when space is inherently a very dangerous place to go. So as long as we spend our time trying to avoid any kind of risk, we're not going to move ahead very imaginatively."

Cunningham faults Congress and NASA for thinking they can cut costs and still fly safely. He also thinks NASA can rekindle some of the old excitement of the early days by convincing the public and Congress once and for all that going into space will always be dangerous, and it's going to be hugely expensive, but well worth it. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.