Fifty years ago, on the afternoon of January 27, 1967, three astronauts climbed into an Apollo capsule on launch pad 34 at Cape Kennedy. Astronauts Edward White, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Roger Chaffee weren’t on their way to space that day. It was just a test–a launch rehearsal. But five and a half hours into the test, one of the astronauts, most likely Chaffee, reported a fire in the cabin. Because it was only a test, the explosive bolts on the capsule door weren’t armed, and it took ground crews almost five minutes to open the hatch, by which time all three men were dead. It was the first time America had lost astronauts.
Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom grew up in Indiana. Immediately after graduating from high school in 1944, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces, but the war would end before he saw any action and he was discharged late in 1945. After graduating from Purdue University, he re-enlisted in the newly formed United States Air Force, earning his pilot’s wings in 1951. During the Korean War, he flew 100 combat missions in an F-86 Sabre.
On April 13, 1959, Grissom received notification that he had been selected as one of the first seven Mercury astronauts. Just over two years later, on July 21, 1969, he became the second American to fly in space. After his suborbital flight, the hatch on his capsule unexpectedly blew. While Grissom was rescued, his Mercury capsule was lost. (It was later recovered in 1999, and is currently on display at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis.)
On March 23, 19654, Grissom commanded Gemini 3, making him the first American to fly in space twice. As a humorous reference to the fate of his Mercury capsule, he named the Gemini 3 Molly Brown. His co-pilot for the mission was John Young, who would go on to walk on the Moon and command the first-ever Space Shuttle mission.
At the time of his death, Grissom was a Lieutenant Colonel. He left behind his wife, Betty, and two sons. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Senior Pilot Edward White II was born in Texas, the son of a man who would become a Major General in the Air Force. As a youth, he was a Boy Scout, and he graduated from West Point Military Academy in 1952. We tried out for the Olympics in swimming and just barely missed making the team.
In 1962, White was named as one of the nine men selected as the second group of astronauts. On June 3, 1965, as the pilot of Gemini 4, White became the first American to walk in space. At the end of the EVA, he said, “I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.”
Like Grissom, he was a Lieutenant Colonel at the time of his death. He was buried at West Point, and left behind his wife Patricia, a son and a daughter.
Pilot Roger Chaffee was the only member of the Apollo 1 crew never to make it to space. Chaffee grew up in Michigan, where he became an Eagle Scout. He turned down an offer to attend the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and instead attended the Illinois Institute of Technology on a NROTC scholarship. Chaffee transferred to and graduated from Purdue, and after graduation joined the Navy as a pilot. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he flew 82 missions over the island.
On October 18, 1963, Chaffee was selected as one of the 18 men picked in the third group of astronauts. He was the capsule communicator, or CAPCOM, for both Grissom’s Gemini 3 flight and White’s Gemini 4.
He is buried next to Grissom at Arlington National Cemetery. Like the others, he left behind a wife and two children. The Chaffee Crater on the Moon is named for him. All three Apollo 1 astronauts have hills on Mars named for them.
Following the accident, NASA changed many of its procedures, including discontinuing the policy of filling capsules with pure oxygen and ensuring that explosive bolts are always engaged on hatches when astronauts are inside. They also removed many of the flammable materials inside the craft.
At the request of the astronauts’ wives, NASA agreed to officially designate the test as Apollo 1. The next manned flight, Apollo 7, wouldn’t launch until October, 1968, in a fully redesigned capsule. Of course, 9 months after that, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would complete what White, Grissom, and Chaffee had begun and become the first men on the Moon.
It would be almost twenty years before NASA lost any more astronauts. Coincidentally, the next disaster would take place nineteen years and one day after Apollo 1 when Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986.