This was a disaster waiting to happen. Not in the same way that Challenger was lost but still, with hindsight, a 100% oxygen, positive pressure [the pressure inside the capsule was higher that the external air pressure] atmosphere in a small, confined space wasn’t the best idea.
With veteran astronauts Grissom and White was a rookie. Roger Chaffee.
A bachelor [Sorry, I got confused with someone else. This was an updated version of a post that originally appeared here – ed] who was looking forward to his first flight.
The problems of the capsule started quite early with lots of flammable material, built into the capsule. A door that couldn’t easily, and quickly, be opened from the inside. This was a design decision from when Grissom’s Mercury’s capsule door spontaneously failed. Not only that they had been delivered with over 700 faults that had to be fixed at the Kennedy Space Center. This lead to Grissom famously hanging a lemon over the simulator and not as most people think over the actual capsule.
The crew were promised by Joseph F. Shea, the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office that all their concerns were cleared up and it would be safe to fly. This lead to the photograph below sent to Shea with the following comment
It isn’t that we don’t trust you, Joe, but this time we’ve decided to go over your head.
The test started and problems were reported immediately with an odor that was described as “Sour milk“. Then there were communication problems that caused Grissom to remark, “How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between three buildings?“. Then with the crew strapped into their suits and breathing 100% oxygen at 23:30:54 GMT something shorted and a spark produced. Ten seconds later Chaffee was heard to say “Hey!” This was possibly when the fire started and seventeen seconds later all communications was lost when a scream was heard.
When the hatch was finally opened they found the astronauts dead and in positions that indicated that they were trying to open the hatch as the procedures dictated.
This shut down the entire Apollo project until NASA discovered what happened. Within 3 months the investigation was complete and report written.
What came out of this report was: An easier to remove hatch, an atmosphere closer to that on Earth, removal of anything and everything that could be combustible [this includes making fireproof “paper”] and better documentation of what goes into the next generation of Apollo capsules.
There are many different memorials to the three. Ranging from mountains on Mars to craters on the Moon down to schools and bridges.
Without men like Grissom, White and Chaffee who had the courage to go into the unknown with, sometimes, not knowing the risks then man, President Kennedy’s dream may not have succeed.
Space.com has the below footage talking about the aftermath of the fire from Universal Newsreel.
Or this piece from the British Pathe here in the UK with a piece called “Their Last Countdown“