Apollo 1: the Fire that Shocked NASA

NASA’s Apollo program began with one of the worst disasters the organization has ever faced. A routine prelaunch test turned fatal when a fire ripped through the spacecraft’s crew cabin killing all three astronauts. Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, a tragic and preventable accident. There were warning signs, similar accidents that had claimed lives both in the United States and abroad. The Apollo 1 crew could have been saved from a gruesome death. (Left, the Apollo 1 crew, Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee jokingly say a little prayer for their problematic spacecraft in this unofficial crew portrait. 1966.)

Read the whole article on Scientific American’s Guest Blog.


  • Ray Katz says:

    Lovely article, as usual.

    I’ve always been fascinated…and horrified…by the fire. I bought some items related to Apollo 1 at auction, including a Gus Grissom ID for North American Aviation. (He used it when he visited the spacecraft being constructed in Downey, California.) And I own something else…and emergency egress plan. The plan was, ironically, a test to get out of the spacecraft in a (simulated) emergency. My understanding is that this test was slated for January 27, 1967…but never took place because the fire happened first.

    I’ve also got a blog entry today about Apollo 1. It’s on the Constitution Daily blog…and really needs a few typos fixed…but I haven’t got access…


  • Jasper says:

    Very well written article. I didn’t know of the other oxygen/pressure vessel related accidents in the U.S. Thanks for enlightening.

  • John says:

    Gus Grissom nearly drowned in 1961 after the hatch blew (outward) prematurely following his flight in Liberty Bell 7. Some blamed Gus for blowing the hatch prematurely, although none of the astronauts or those that knew him well did. In my opinion Tom Wolfe libeled Grissom in “The Right Stuff” and the movie of the same name added to that, portraying Grissom as panicking.

    Following Wally Schirra’s Mercury flight, he purposely blew his hatch after his spacecraft was lifted aboard the recovery carrier. The recoil from the explosion was so violent, he received a cut from the switch through the protective covering of his suit. Grissom had suffered no abrasions or injury from the blowing of the hatch, strongly supporting his claim that the hatch blew by itself. Liberty Bell was recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after nearly 40 years. By then, Grissom had been exonerated in the opinion of most experts.

    Early in the design of the Apollo spacecraft, the hatch was changed to open inward instead of blowing outward. Some say that Grissom was involved in this decision. Ironically, that may have contributed to the deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee.

    Grissom was one of the most respected astronauts and his engineering had contributed greatly to the successful Gemini spacecraft. Grissom had been chosen to be Commander of the first Gemini flight and the first Apollo flight. In 1967 he was a good bet to be the Commander of the first Lunar landing mission.

    His loss was truly profound.

  • […] of communications between NASA and contractor North American Aviation played a large role in the Apollo 1 fire — the contractor knew of the dangers of the plugs out test but the agency pressed on to keep […]

  • David Shomper says:

    According to the NASA timeline of the fire, the removal of the bodies was completed 7.5 hours after the fire, not 1.5 as stated. See:


  • […] there a chance they might fail? Yes. In fact the possibility for failure was constantly very real. Disasters did happen. Did that stop things? No. They did what anyone should in the face of failure. They learned […]

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